She knocked on my door and entered with an uncomfortable look on her face. She sat gently, eyes fixed on the ground, and asked me,“Miss Angela, what is period and what happens when a lady says she's on her period?”

 

She had just graduated from primary school and was preparing to begin her secondary school education after the long break. At 10, she'd heard most of her friends in school say they're on their period and even though hers was yet to begin, she was worried.  She wondered what it felt like, and why hers was, by social consensus, late.  She yearned to know so as to be ready before the time came.  I was 22 and had just graduated from university.  Being the first grandchild of my family, I have lots of younger relatives -  mostly girls - and I learned to make myself an honest and supportive source of information.  Lots of time, I would find myself talking about either relationships or sex-related issues with young people - both my relatives and teenagers who lived nearby.  This young girl was a family friend who was sent by her parents to stay with us, as they lived far away and wanted to make it easier for her to resume boarding school from our house. I was thrown aback by her questions, though I maintained a poker face as I wondered why this kid whose parents are 'alive and active' knew nothing about menstruation. I couldn't resist my own curiosity, so I asked her.

“Your Mom has never mentioned anything to you about menstruation before now?”

She shook her head: no.      

When I was growing up in the south-eastern part of Nigeria, I realized that my environment was made up of people who attached morality to everything.  They made judgements based on their own generalized understanding of something – be it love, life, or in this case, menstruation - and mostly used it to judge certain situations that were not actually inherently bad. For example: It's usually a norm during Christmas for all grandchildren of my grandparents to gather at our grandma's where we eat together, play, and talk about life.  During those talks, the elders expect to hear us talking about moral, religious subjects and nothing pertaining to relationships, love, or sex.  A third party who might overhear someone talking about those 'forbidden topics' even without knowing the speaker, and perhaps assume the speaker to be someone with low morals even within a context that might justify talking about those topics.

This moralising is the reason so many older people are still stuck in their own definition of 'modesty', whilst actually ignoring their responsibility of educating those who do not yet know what they do not know.  Most times, adults in Nigeria’s Okpuno community, where I grew up, shy away from uncomfortable topics or give excuses to avoid giving sex education to younger people,or when they feel disturbed by persistent questions, they lie.  Many kids can't even depend on getting in-depth sex education from school, as these lessons are usually shallow and one wouldn't dare ask questions for fear of being perceived as corrupt or perverse.

Obviously, everyone knows now that pregnancy and sexual practices are somehow linked, but many girls are told that even talking to a boy or man would impregnate her. In my youth, I wouldn't dare to be seen talking to a guy. Even though I attended a mixed-gender primary school, all hell was let loose on me by my Dad the day he saw a male classmate of mine passing by who decided to stop by and say hello. Now, even though I understand a little more that most of these adults’ actions are a clumsy means of protecting their children whilst still accommodating their inability (or unwillingness) to be open-minded, this still doesn’t prevent sexual curiosity and actions.

Research into abstinence-only education has conclusively found that even when not educated about sex and sexuality, young people goon to experiment both by themselves and with who is available,often doing dangerous or impractical things to make sense of the turbulent changes brought on by adolescence.

I remember a young girl about my age at the time (12 years), who told me to hit my developing breasts with the head of a broomstick so as to prevent them from growing excessively big. She even added that a friend of hers had helped her hit hers,but although she encouraged me to do so, the fear of the pain I would encounter prevented me from doing the same.  I'm sure she felt that I was a chicken, but with the knowledge I have now of pubescence, I can only feel pity for the girl who hurt herself unnecessarily for no reason.

When I heard that a young girl I knew – a domestic helper for a neighbour - was pregnant at 12, I couldn’t fathom how it happened.  I saw her in person on my way home from the market one day, walking with hands akimbo and a forlorn look on her face, with her little protruding tummy.  I doubled my steps in order to catch up with her, we had a light discussion, and I casually asked her how she had become pregnant.  She told me that she didn't believe she could get pregnant, since she thought pregnancy was only able to happen when one reached a certain age. It was really a sad thing to hear, because her life was drastically changed on a false assumption, and each time I remember that hint of regret in her voice, I can't help but think that it would have been avoided if she was given proper sex education. 

Based on my anecdotal experience growing up, I would say that 7 out of 10 families in my area had a young person between the ages of 4-8years who was sexually exploited - either moderately or gravely – by either the male domestic staff, who were normally called 'house boys' and were employed to assist families in their businesses through marketing and sales of goods.  In most cases, they live in the same compound as the family whom they are assisting, giving them unfettered access to potentially vulnerable children.  None of those young persons felt comfortable speaking up to tell their parents because most times they're frightened by threats from whomever was exploiting them and by possible punishment from their guardians, who might believe that the young person may have contributed to the exploitation.

Some years back, I attended a female-only conference with a few people in circle, where child abuse was discussed in detail. It seemed as if all feelings of guilt and shame was wiped away because that was the first time in years that some were able to open up and speak about the sexual exploitations they endured either at the hands of relatives, domestic staff, or other authority figures.

Over the course of that conference, I learned what should have been common knowledge: that sex education comes in stages and broadens as the young person advances in age. For example, one can teach one's 3-year-olds that some parts of their body are only theirs to touch, and that they should know the difference between regular touching (like being bathed), and bad touching and who to talk to if someone tries to touch them in an invasive way.  It is age-appropriate, and not even sexual – it is about teaching children to have healthy and reasonable relationships with their own bodies so that they can grown into adults who have a more acute understanding of what is and is not okay in their interpersonal relationships.  Conversations would, if had openly, most likely run similarly to the conversation I had with my 10-year-old family friend, where I explained what menstruation was (shedding of the uterine walls) and that it occurred more or less monthly.

I took time to thoroughly teach her how to count one's cycle, adding that if she keeps track when it comes then she won't need to be be worried about getting stained, as she would be prepared.  I also listed many factors that can make one's period abnormal, such as anxiety, stress, drugs, and the like.  By the time we were done with our little session I could see a satisfying gleam in her eyes.  She hugged me warmly and promised to keep in touch when she went back to school.  Not dramatic.  Not traumatic.  Just honest.

The fact that older people have refused to educate young people on issues pertaining to sex has also made most young people incapable of speaking out even when they are exploited. As I urge older people to be more open minded to trends, evolutions, lifestyles and the like, I also urge young people the more to do the same.  Young people are the future leaders in our various vocations in life, and we need to learn how to use our minds, our intuition, and our voices to protect ourselves and each other.  We need to learn to speak up, and confidently, despite all the challenges we face.  When it comes to justice and equality, we can never be too bold or too outspoken. 

 

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