To commemorate the international day of the girl, the Embassy of Sweden in Kigali had a girls’ rights activist take over as ambassador for one day.
One of her many important tasks was to write an opinion article on a matter with great importance for her and the article below is the result.
Girls have many questions about their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
As they grow up they don’t know how to act and they don’t always find answers – often they might feel like they can’t talk to community health workers or parents about their bodily changes, because of fear of stigma or fear of being mocked and judged.
Girls and young women will find their own way to get information and answers, and that information is not always true.
Therefore, I ask you, what should be done?
I grew up afraid of asking my mother about menstruation – she used to tell me that my time would come; but is there an appropriate time for girls to get this kind of information? Some people think that a girl doesn’t even have the right ask or think about that topic – they say it’s a taboo. They say that if a girl starts asking a lot of questions about her sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) she wants to be sexually active or she already is.
In my everyday life, I meet with different girls with such questions. Here are some examples. When Gloriose first got her menstruation, her skirt was stained with blood because she wasn’t aware of what was happening to her.
When she had menstrual cramps her friends wrongly advised her to have sex with a man because according to them it would heal her.
While she was asking herself what to do, her teacher thankfully realized her situation and offered her support and explained what was happening.
There is also Claudine who is 19 years old. She already has a two year-old boy. Claudine said she didn’t know that she had the right to say no to her boyfriend when he wanted to have sex with her, even though she didn’t want to.
Furthermore, she wasn’t aware of the different ways in which she could protect herself from having an unplanned pregnancy. She said that when she tried to ask her friends for advice, they would mock her, and when it came to asking her parents she didn’t dare because their reaction would be to say it wasn’t her concern or that she was being immoral. With a heavy heart, she told me “if I only had access to the right information, I would have made a better decision for myself”.
Access to SRHR is not just a right, it also creates wealth
The economic empowerment of girls and women is likely to depend on their understanding of, and access to, their SRHR.
The logic is simple: when an underage girl becomes pregnant because of a lack of knowledge about her SRHR, it creates a shock in her life. Priorities that were there earlier (education, career, etc.) have to change to fit the life of a single, underage mother.
The girl will not be able to go to school and educate herself because she now has a baby to care for; she might even be kicked out of her family’s house because of the dishonor she has brought onto the family.
This is why unplanned teenage pregnancies create poverty, and a child – especially a child born to another child – changes one’s life and makes one having to take responsibilities one may not yet be fit for.
Here is how you can get truthful information:
- You should know that you have the right to ask for support from your parents, teachers or any other elder person that you trust. Explain yourself properly so the person you’re asking understands what you want to learn and why you are asking such questions. You may also tell them the reason behind the curiosity and the benefits you will get from it. Pay close attention to what they are telling you – it is important that you understand their worries and concerns. It is important to keep the conversation polite – it may contribute to ending their doubts. If you feel like they don’t listen to you today, they might listen to you tomorrow.
- Always remember that it is normal to have questions about your body’s changes during puberty and that the correct answers to those will improve your experience of puberty.
- If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your parents, teachers or elders, you can go to a nearby health center or to a youth center. You will find someone there who is responsible for receiving young people and you can ask them anything you want to know about sexual and reproductive health and rights.
- You could also visit social media platforms or internet sources that are known and trusted. WHO, UNICEF, Ni Nyampinga and UNFPA are good sources to look at.
The importance of a supportive environment
For the implementation of the right to information on SRHR, us girls and boys must have a supportive environment around us.
We must have people who understand us, who understand the importance of our right to information about issues affecting us, and to comprehensive sexual education.
We should have a supportive environment which must not be judgmental; instead it should encourage us. And it might happen that parents, teachers or elders don’t have the answers to our questions but that shouldn’t stop them from guiding us to the person with these.
Last, but definitely not the least: Boys and men have a responsibility too.
Boys and men must understand that the decisions that girls and women make about their bodies are only up to girls and women to make.
We must all understand that it’s our right to say no to sex, it is our right to decide when we feel ready to have sex, and it is our right to be given information about – and to use – contraceptives if we decide we are ready to have sex. Seeking advice, help and answers to difficult questions is not a disgrace – parents and the community must know that.
Icyizere Pascaline, is a journalist currently working with Girl Effect. She served as Swedish Ambassador-for-a-day to Rwanda when she wrote this article.