Sex Talk in Ghana by Esenam Amuzu
Sexuality and reproductive health education is a political issue in many Western countries. But in Ghana and other developing countries, access to family planning information is a matter of life and death, especially for girls and young women.
LABADI, GHANA – Sexuality and reproductive health education is a serious political issue in many Western countries. Elections are won or lost on issues such as abortion and “family” values. But in Ghana and many other developing countries, family planning is a matter of life and death, especially for girls and young women.
Six years ago, when I was a girl growing up in a slum in southern Ghana, it was normal to hear stories of teenage girls having abortions; 14-year-old girls giving birth; and 18-year-old men beating their prepubescent girlfriends for refusing to wash their partner’s clothes. No one in positions of authority – such as parents or teachers – seemed concerned that the victims were unmarried girls, often below the legal age of consent.
It was my “normal”. Many classmates dropped out of school after becoming pregnant. Others have died opting for abortions at unlicensed facilities.
If I could see these issues so clearly, why couldn’t the adults in my life do something about them?
In the part of Ghana where I grew up, sex education was the limiting factor. Young women and girls did not have access to the most basic information on reproductive health. The subject was not taught in schools, due to “cultural sensitivities”. Parents and educators were not much help either; many thought that talking about sex with children would make them more libertine. So instead of being the first place to turn, family and teachers have become a last resort. Many of us have turned to each other; others have gone online, where the information is often inaccurate.
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The lack of sex education has caused serious damage to Ghanaian youth. According to a recent poll According to the US-based Guttmacher Institute, 43% of girls and 27% of boys have had sex before the age of 20.e birthday. Even more shockingly, 12% of Ghanaian girls under the age of 15 have had sex at least once (compared to 9% of boys). Of those who are sexually active today, only 30% use some form of contraception, and only 22% use a modern form (such as condoms). In a country with high teenage birth rates and staggering levels of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, these percentages are deeply troubling.
Birth control can be a lifeline for young women in particular. The United Nations Population Fund, for example, estimates that increased contraceptive use in developing countries would reduce annual maternal deaths by 70,000 and infant deaths by 500,000. In Ghana, expanding access to modern contraception is a crucial starting point for improving the long-term health of children and pregnant women.
To begin with, governments should focus on the sexual health of young people by offering comprehensive instruction in reproductive health issues, including topics related to contraceptive methods, how to communicate in relationships, and where to access information and support. linked to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Governments also need to increase partnerships with civil society groups.
And yet, young Ghanaians cannot rely on adults to do all the work; we must advocate on our own behalf. Earlier this year, I helped launch a youth-led initiative called My teenage life, to give young people a voice in the way we talk about sexuality in rural Ghana. Thanks to the generous support of the Global Changemakers initiative in Switzerland, this project is off to a promising start. He is already teaching parents and guardians how to talk to their children about sexual health; provide vocational training for teenage mothers; and work to break the cycle of poverty and early births.
To date, My Teen Life has reached over 100 teenagers and their families, and a first group of teenage mothers have been formed to make jewelry and slippers to generate income. We hope to expand these and other efforts to many more Ghanaian and African adolescents in the months and years to come.
Such initiatives are meant to attract girls in ways that government programs do not. Until recently, “family planning” in Ghana was only offered to married couples. Although this has changed somewhat, many women, even those who are married, still cannot access quality services due to patriarchal family structures.
On our small scale, My Teen Life effectively caters to young people. We help them learn and understand what is happening as they grow up and how to best make the decisions that will determine their future in life. We empower every young girl we work with to stay in school and stress that if they are expressing their sexuality, they must remain in control of what happens to their bodies. There is still a lot of work to be done, but my colleagues and I believe that when young people provide solutions to their own problems, lasting change is more likely to follow.