|Adolescent Sexuality and the HIV Epidemic (UNDP, 1999, 24 p.)|
In many societies, the family and immediate community traditionally provided young people with information and guidance about sex and sexuality. In some societies, including many throughout the continent of Africa, the provision of information about sex used to be formalised as part of initiation into adult roles. Elsewhere, the provision of information about sex through the family has been more informal, while in some cultures open discussion of sexual matters between parents and children may actually be rare. It is important to recognise these variations in how sex education takes place within the family and community, and how they affect the sexual beliefs and behaviour of young people. In many parts of the developing world, recent and rapid urbanisation and migration have meant that families and community networks have become more widely dispersed. This may have impacted on sexual socialization and education as well as on the sexual behaviour and sexuality of young people.
In parts of East and Central Africa, traditional rituals of initiation prepared young people for their adult role, including education on the responsibilities of sex, marriage and child-rearing. In this context, sexuality serves '... as a source of relations, of kinship and affinity, thereby the basis for solidarity, reciprocity and cooperation' (Fuglesang, 1997: 1248). Because sexuality contributed to social cohesion, communities developed 'rules' concerning the expression of sexuality as well as mechanisms for controlling sexual behaviour (Fuglesang, 1997). Sexual behaviour's potential to cause harm - through jealousy, emotional discord and infection - as well as good, was widely recognised. Communities therefore developed codes of conduct relating to when, where and with whom sexual relationships might take place.
In order to communicate these principles to young people, initiation ceremonies were held, often separately for girls and for boys. In Tanzania, for example, initiation rites for girls, referred to as Unyago, were led by a ceremonial leader or Somo (Fuglesang, 1997). The Somo was not a relative, but an older woman recognised as knowledgeable and experienced in child-bearing and rearing. She continued to advise young women from puberty and throughout married life. Menstruation and the codes of conduct associated with it were explained to young girls, as well as information about pregnancy and ways of preventing conception. Importantly, sex education was contextualised in terms of preparation for adult life (Fuglesang, 1997).
In Kenya, rituals associated with the transition from childhood to adulthood and which included sex education have also been documented (Balmer et al, 1997). Until recently, the transition from childhood to adulthood, which did not constitute a period of 'adolescence' as contemporarily understood, was sharper and less protracted. With increasing urbanisation, however, these rituals have lost their significance and the transition from childhood to adulthood has been complicated by '... the development of the phase of adolescence... [as well as] by the decline of traditional sources of authority, such as the extended family' (Banner et al, 1997: 34). Sexual debut, Balmer et al (1997) note, takes place earlier than in the past, young people have a greater number of partners, and yet lack access to effective contraception.
Similar processes of transition in sexual socialisation have been documented in Zimbabwe where, as a consequence of rural to urban migration and urbanisation, extended family members including tetes or paternal aunts, are no longer available to offer advice to young women, and young men lack the guidance they used to receive from village elders, many of whom themselves have embraced lifestyles different from those of the past (Runganga & Aggleton, 1998). In Zimbabwe, traditional channels of communication about sex and marriage have reportedly lessened in importance because of social and economic factors. Recent in-depth interviews with 80 young people aged between 14-18 years confirmed that nowadays credible sexual information tends to be obtained not from family members, but from the media, school and friends. In contrast, information from aunts and uncles was described by young people as generalised, one-sided, authoritarian and prescriptive (Wilson et al, 1994).
Runganga and Aggleton (1998) in their recent examination of transformations in Shona society in Zimbabwe, highlight the processes of adult tutelage which in pre-colonial times helped ensure a degree of conformity to prescribed sexual norms. While these norms were not universally adhered to, sanctions existed to help maintain certain standards of sexual behaviour: for example, men who were known to have had extra-marital sex were subject to fines. Colonialism played a large part in changing sexual norms, however, by encouraging male migration to the cities and making it difficult for men to take their partners with them. Families were split for long periods of time, extra-marital sex increased and sex work proliferated.
Nowadays, children whose parents must seek work in the cities tend to be raised by various family members and may be subject to conflicting messages about sexual behaviour. Some children are left in the care of siblings without consistent adult supervision, thus increasing opportunities for sexual activity. The effectiveness of traditional family expectations and structures in shaping sexual beliefs, expectations and behaviours appears to have been substantially weakened by population movement. With little continuity in sex education within the family, young people report that their peers are more relied upon for information and guidance about sex (Runganga and Aggleton, 1998).
There is evidence from elsewhere in Africa to suggest that peers have become a more important source of knowledge, advice and support. In Malawi, for example, sixty per cent of girls recently interviewed reported having learned about menstruation from friends, not from their grandmothers or advisors as traditionally occurred (Helitzer-Allen, 1997). The media is relied upon more than was the case in the past to provide information and guidance about sex and sexual relationships.
From countries across the world, there is also evidence that young people and adults talk only infrequently to one another about sex. In India, young people and especially young girls are reported as having consistently poor knowledge about sex and reproduction, including modes of transmission for HIV and the use of condoms as a preventive measure. Parents and family members are reluctant to discuss sexual matters with young people. Women interviewed in a variety of contexts report that they were told very little about sex and reproduction prior to marriage (Bang et al, 1989). In rural and urban areas young people, especially girls, remain uninformed since sex and reproduction are considered distasteful and embarrassing subjects (Jejeebhoy, 1998). In a recent study conducted in Mumbai, one mother interviewed said that adults do not want to frighten young girls by talking about sex (George & Jaswal, 1995). By way of contrast, and like many of their counterparts in countries elsewhere in the world, young men in this same context are encouraged to be sexually experienced, but reliable sources of information are few and far between. The peer group therefore constitutes an important source of information, as does the developing mass media (Jejeebhoy, 1998). In Thailand, where many young people migrate from rural areas to cities in order to work in factories, the peer group may provide the only means of finding out about sex and has been reported as having a key role to play in shaping sexual beliefs and behaviour (Cash et al, 1997).
Recent research in Brazil has shown that discussions of sex and related topics may be discouraged for girls because of the common belief that to inform them about sex is to encourage sexual activity (Vasconcelos et al, 1997). Mothers traditionally attempt to delay their daughters' discovery and exploration of sexuality by preventing them from getting access to such information. Consequently, girls reported avoiding talking to their mothers about sexual matters for fear that showing a curiosity about sex which could arouse suspicions about their behaviour (Vasconcelos et al, 1997).
This perhaps modern day reluctance to talk to young women about sex is widespread and has been reported in many different contexts. For many young women, discussion about sex has often limited to warnings about dangers and the importance of preserving their 'honour'. Recent research in countries as varied as Nigeria, the Philippines, Egypt and Mexico has shown that for fear of encouraging sexual activity, mothers withhold vital information about sexuality and reproduction from their daughters '... imparting instead messages of danger, fear and shame' (Petchesky & Judd, 1998: 305). However, there is some evidence that the advent of HIV is leading to some changes, particularly in large cities where HIV/AIDS has high visibility. In Sao Paulo, Brazil where AIDS is the leading cause of death among women aged between 20-35 years, the taboo about talking with young women about sexuality and reproduction is reportedly breaking down. Mothers recently interviewed in this city described how they are beginning to urge their daughters to 'be safe' rather than to 'stay pure' (Grilo Diniz, de Mello E Souza &. Portella, 1998).
However, recent research recently conducted among a variety of groups of young people in Costa Rica, Chile, Cameroun, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea has shown that while young women may expect to receive some sex education within the family, albeit centering on the technicalities of reproduction and menstruation, young men report a virtual absence of parental information or guidance about the physiological changes associated with puberty or sex, and the responsibilities of a sexually active adult life. Information is almost solely acquired from the media, and from peers and siblings, many of whom have themselves been similarly deprived of reliable adult guidance (Dowsett & Aggleton, 1997).
While in some countries there have been important changes in the role played by adults in the sexual socialisation of young people, we must take care not to paint too idealised a picture of the past. First, not all the information previously provided by adults and other community members would nowadays be recognised as accurate or useful for the promotion of sexual and reproductive health. Second, not all young people were persuaded by the education they received. Conceptions did take place outside of a recognised union, sexually transmitted and reproductive tract infections were not unknown, and some initiation practices themselves (e.g. group circumcision) carried health risks.
Neither should we adopt too unproblematic a view of the changes in sexual socialisation and behaviours brought about by rural-urban migration. It is just as probable that sexual practices in the city may represent the adaptation of cultural rules to a new environment, as any wholesale abandonment of traditional customs. As Cara(1997) has recently suggested, urban inhabitants may adapt traditional practices, beliefs and understandings to life in their new setting. For example, the long period of sexual abstinence among women after the birth of a child, which in some rural areas of Africa may be supported by polygamy, may in some urban settings be substituted for by the male's sexual relations with 'free' women outside of marriage (ibid, 113).
That said, where some communication between adults and young people continues to exist, it may be infrequent, of poor quality, and carried out by adults who are less sure of their roles than in the past (Weiss, Wheland and Gupta, 1996). This is no less true for teachers in schools as it is for adult kin and family members. In many countries, teachers have reported being embarrassed to talk about the topic of sex, and ill prepared for teaching about sexual matters (e.g. Jejeebhoy, 1998). It is important that they be offered training and support so as to undertake this kind of work with young people, and so as to be able to work with parents and community leaders in preparing the ground for it to take place. Important challenges therefore remain in relation to efforts to promote the sexual and reproductive health of young people in ways attuned both to social and cultural contexts and local needs.