I feel a trite uncomfortable banging on and on about the plight of young Rwandan girls but I really can’t help it. Is it ever okay for a man, me in this case, to poke holes in the prevailing myth that everything is okay where gender is concerned? Before I get attacked for pointing out that the ‘emperor has no clothes’ let me say that I believe that Rwanda is doing a lot of good things in empowering women. But just because we are doing good things it doesn’t mean that we should rest on our laurels.
But let’s first look at the laurels that we are being rightly lauded for. We have an astronomical number of women at the highest echelons; the Supreme Court president, the foreign minister, the Speaker of parliament, the health minister and various heads of institutions. Rwanda is one of the very few countries worldwide to vaccinate young girls against cervical cancer-causing HPV and the Imbuto Foundation is at the forefront of the girls empowerment movement.
I’m often tempted to pat myself on the proverbial back and say that our women are a happy, equal lot with the kind of information needed to truly empower themselves. That is, until I get a slap in the face. I’d always believed that Rwanda had done enough in the field of imparting reproductive health information to young women but I shocked to find that the battle is hardly won. On Sunday, as I do once a month, I was at FAWE Girls School doing a bit of mentoring. The topic we discussed that day was ‘HIV and reproductive health’.
The discussion went well and the teenagers seemed to know quite a bit about HIV and how to prevent it and well as some aspects of reproductive health. It was when we got a little off script that things got interesting. One of the girls asked “is it okay to have sex with your boyfriend”? Instead of giving her a direct answer I asked what the other girls thought. Some of the things that they said absolutely horrified me. From beliefs such as that woman who had given birth or at least undergone an abortion was more sexually desirable to men to teenage girls couldn’t control their sexual urges, I felt myself drown in all the ignorance. When I found that none of the girls had even a rudimentary understanding of birth control pills, I silently cursed their teachers and parents as well. I wondered, if FAWE Girls School is one of the girls schools we have, and their students were so ignorant of things that a pre-teen in the US knew by heart, how bad was it in rural Rwanda?
Something is going very wrong in my opinion. Are we, as a society, failing our girls? Not just the government and school system, but parents as well? Be honest with yourself, how many of you with daughters, nieces or young sisters give them the facts of life, the ‘birds and the bees’? If you don’t, where do you think they get that knowledge, from their school’s biology teachers? Forget about that, that isnt happening. How many schools have a sex-ed class? I don’t know of even one. And because sex is simply taboo in our society, people are putting their heads in the sand and pretending that their children aren’t engaging in it. News flash: they are, all the time. I can understand why parents, and the larger society, are so uncomfortable with facing these facts. This society is a bit too religious for my taste, and this Christian influence is making ‘straight-talk’ difficult. But we must find a way of giving our girls the uncensored facts. While we might think this uncomfortable, better we are uncomfortable rather than dealing with the consequences of bad decisions made out of ignorance.