When sex education shames girls instead of empowering them, it's time for a new narrative.
"Of what benefit is a message that makes a woman feel worthless?"
I have worked with sex education facilitators who believe the best way to discourage girls from engaging in premarital sex is to compare a girl to a loaf of bread.
This is how it goes: The facilitator sends someone to buy a freshly baked loaf of bread—soft, usually not so brown. The girls are already sitting, anticipating the next move. Next, the facilitator passes the loaf around the group, encouraging the girls to smell it, press it, slice it. By the time the bread has made the rounds, it is in a different state and shape from when it was just bought.
The facilitator then asks: Who wants this bread now? Would you use your money to buy this bread? Would you eat this bread even if I gave it to you for free? Not surprisingly, many of the girls answer no.
The facilitator goes on to explain that only a stranger who does not know that the bread has been passed around the group would want to eat it. She then draws a comparison between a woman who has had sex before marriage, or has had sex with multiple partners, and the bread. She says that only an unsuspecting man would marry her, as no man would choose a woman who has "been around the block." This analogy may dissuade teenage girls from engaging in premarital sex, but it causes more damage than it prevents.
First, it promotes the deeply disturbing idea that a woman's worth depends on the state of her hymen. There are no words to describe how disempowering it is to reduce women who are sexually active outside of marriage to loaves of bread that have been passed around a group.
Secondly, this graphic allegory reinforces the patriarchy that is deeply ingrained in our religion and culture: The type of patriarchy that permits men to be promiscuous and crucifies women who are 'unchaste'; the type that says it's okay for a man who has had sex with the whole community to pick and choose a virgin when he's ready for marriage, but does not afford that woman the same luxury; the type that defines chastity as though it’s a word only applicable to women.
I do not see the need for this exercise at all; but if it must be used, why isn’t it a gender balanced discussion? If no man would marry a woman who has had multiple sex partners, then no woman should marry a man who falls into same category. If women lose their "market value" by having sex outside of marriage, so do men! However, I have never seen a sexually active man compared to a loaf of bread.
What good could possibly come out of a message that holds women ransom to the ideals of patriarchy and subjugation? Of what benefit is a message that makes a woman feel worthless? What do we hope to achieve by leading a young girl to believe that her hymen is her crown and if she loses it, she becomes half the woman she was made to be?
Information is power. We don’t need to bully and browbeat teenage girls into gender assigned roles and conformity. Instead, we must empower them with knowledge to help them make good decisions. Imagine if instead of teaching a girl to see herself as a discarded loaf of bread, we taught her to see herself as powerful and capable of making her own choices. Imagine if we gave her the confidence to make her own informed decision on when to have sex and with whom to have sex. Imagine if we helped her understand and carefully consider the implications of sex with multiple partners, or unprotected sex, or sex before she is ready to bear the attendant consequences. Imagine if instead of resorting to derogatory metaphors, we taught her that she is whole irrespective of any disability she may suffer, the state of her hymen, the color of her skin, and her socioeconomic or religious status. And imagine if instead of teaching her to be ashamed of her gender, we equipped her with accurate information that she can pass on from mother to child, and from friend to friend.
It’s time to rethink how we teach sex education in Nigeria. The bread analogy just doesn't apply to girls. In fact, it doesn't even apply to bread. Whenever I see this activity facilitated, I know exactly what will happen. That loaf of bread no one is supposed to want? By the end of the session it gets eaten.
Vweta is a Voices of Our Future Correspondent from Nigeria. As a teenager, Vweta lost her voice following an emergency tracheotomy. For years she has struggled to improve her health and regain her voice. When she was finally able to speak audibly, she decided to be a spokesperson for disabled women in Nigeria who are discriminated against and taken advantage of. Vweta envisions an egalitarian world where women hold the highest offices possible.