LOUD WHISPERS: Let’s Talk About Sex
A response to Sonnie Ekwowusi’s ‘Sexualisation of Children: Matters Arising’.
On Wednesday April 12th, Sonnie Ekwuwosi wrote an article that was published in This Day Nigeria newspaper called ‘Sexualization of Children: Matters Arising’. It did not come as a surprise to me because he has been frantically circulating his sensationalist claims about adolescent sexuality, sex education and the proposed Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill (GEOB) online for some time now. In his This Day article, he mentioned my name and that of a good friend, Oby Nwankwo, Nigeria’s representative on the UN CEDAW Committee, as champions of sex education as a right for children, and also accused us of pushing the GEOB that will ‘promote homosexuality and abortion’. People are entitled to their own opinions, no matter how archaic, uninformed or scary they might be. They are however not entitled to their own facts. Mr Sonnie Ekwuwosi has a right to write. When he insists on spending energy to convince people that there is a grand conspiracy to corrupt Nigerian children under the guise of Comprehensive Sexuality Education, he should realise that he is treading on thin ice. I take strong objection to Sonnie making libelous statements about my beliefs and values. In an attempt to come across as the champion of morality, he paints women like me as villains who are out to wreak havoc on the moral fabric of our communities.
I have never met Sonnie Ekwuwosi. The interaction I have had with him has been through a recently created WhatsApp group for people working on gender issues. After a while it dawned on some of us that Sonnie was the wrong man to have been added to the group. Sonnie was unrelenting in his rants against any reference to ‘bodily integrity’, ‘sexuality’, ‘sex education’, ‘choice’ and so on. He would go on and on about how our ideas were anti-African and were responsible for the collapse of our traditional values. He kept accusing us of promoting abortion and lesbianism. He would not listen to reason and he would make one absurd claim after another. After a while it was decided that because his views were so alarmingly anti-women, he should be removed from the platform because he had constituted himself into an unwelcome distraction. We all agreed on Sonnie’s rights to his views, but we wanted him to take them elsewhere and not clog our space. Sonnie’s removal from our WhatsApp group infuriated him no end. I was woken up the following morning by a journalist friend who called me and then forwarded a text Sonnie had sent to her. In his usual long rant, he claimed that some of us are out to ‘sexualize’ Nigerian children and import foreign values. He named me and Oby Nwankwo, as some of the ‘ringleaders’. He wanted my journalist friend to interview him so he could ‘expose us’. My friend refused. The text was an abridged version of his article which eventually appeared in This Day on April 12th. Sonnie Ekwuwosi is an editorial board member of This Day so I suppose they don’t have a choice other than to provide him space to air his views.
This is what the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) has to say about Comprehensive Sexuality Education, ‘Comprehensive Sexuality Education enables young people to protect their health, well-being and dignity. These programs are based on human rights principles and they advance gender equality and the rights and empowerment of young people’. UNFPA also goes on to state that, ‘every young person will one day have life-changing decisions to make about their sexual and reproductive health. Yet research shows that the majority of adolescents lack the knowledge required to make those decisions responsibly, leaving them vulnerable to coercion, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy’. One of my favourites is the UNESCO position which describes comprehensive sexuality education as an ‘age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sex and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information’.
I am in my fifties. Like most people in my generation, my parents never had any deep discussions with me about sex. The most I was told was to ‘stay away from boys’. When I was in high school, there was this classmate of mine who was one of the brightest girls in the class. She also seemed to be the most worldly when it came to matters of boys and sex. One day about six of us were having a conversation about sex. We were all curious and asked each other questions which, in hindsight, none of us had any truthful answers to. My classmate declared, very confidently, ‘You can’t get pregnant unless you have an orgasm’. The rest of us did not know what an orgasm was, and we were too embarrassed to ask for fear of displaying our ignorance. We believed her because she seemed to know what she was talking about. This friend did not take her final examinations with us. She was pregnant. When I heard the news I said to myself, ‘she must have had an orgasm’. That was almost four decades ago. Every time the issue of adolescent sexuality comes up I remember the sad case of my naïve, misinformed classmate.
Any parent would agree that they have primary responsibility for talking to their children about sex and related matters. Sonnie’s position is that it is only parents who have this responsibility. This is where I disagree. Parents do not bring their children up in isolation. Children spend long hours outside of the home in school, and even when they are home, parents are either too busy, too prudish or in too much denial to have these conversations. We go to great lengths to teach our children right from wrong, yet we have to contend with peer influences, social media, popular culture, raging hormones and other forces that are not always within our control. If we are concerned about what goes into the sex education curriculum in our children’s schools, we can get involved and ensure that we know what is going on. What we cannot afford to do is throw the baby out with the bathwater. Providing our children with the information they need about their bodies, relationships and decision-making in order to protect them from sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and unwanted pregnancies, does not amount to ‘sexualising them’ as the Sonnies of this world are claiming. What we are doing is being responsible, proactive and realistic.
Sonnie is part of a global, ultra conservative network that is ideologically opposed to any discussion about sexuality. As far as they are concerned, any mention of ‘sexuality’ is about homosexuality, and ‘family planning’ means abortion. Whether we like it or not, our children are exposed to situations or people who will take advantage of their innocence if they do not have the tools to understand what is happening to them and around them. When someone tells a young girl who does not know any better that she cannot get pregnant if she does not have an orgasm, you can just imagine the fate of millions of girls who have fallen victim due to ignorance and misinformation.
I do not wish to be on the same page with Sonnie, in fact, we are not even reading the same book. What I am asking is that Sonnie should continue reading his book and not attempt to burn mine. He also does not have the right to change the title of my book. One of the most outlandish claims that Sonnie made in his This Day article is about the proposed Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill (GEOB) which is currently being considered at the National Assembly. Sonnie and others in his camp are so rabidly opposed to the Bill that they are trying to sabotage it. They claim that (here we go again) the Bill will promote abortion and homosexuality. There is a draft copy of the GEOB available online. Sonnie should point out which sections of the Bill are about abortion and homosexuality. The Bill does mention the rights of women to ‘Family Planning’ , and I suppose this is a red flag to Sonnie’s bull. There are a lot of careful negotiations currently going on around the Bill to ensure that it takes into consideration cultural and religious sensitivities without totally jeopardizing the interests of those it seeks to protect. The sanctimonious hysteria of people such as Sonnie does not help.
Sonnie Ekwuwosi, please stop the bullying and misinformation. I do not claim to speak for all Nigerian women, but regardless of our age, education, social status or geographical location, many of us understand what it means to live as women in a fundamentally patriarchal society. You don’t. Leave Nigerian women, their lives and bodies alone. Every day, women and girls are raped, abused, excluded from decisions which affect them, are denied access to healthcare, education, inheritance, credit and basic amenities. We need the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill to create a level playing field and to ensure that women and men, girls and boys, can live lives of dignity and respect in this country. The GEOB will ensure that our political, economic, cultural and social systems are more inclusive and responsive to the needs of women. None of our developmental goals as a nation will ever be achieved if women are left behind. We will no longer sit in silence while our children are abused and we lack the capacity to change the story. We will work with men who are our husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, who understand what needs to be done, and who are true supporters of promoting the dignity of women. As for the This Day Editorial Board, you might want to do something about the dinosaur that keeps thumping its tail at your board meetings.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com