Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sex Ed: Whose idea is it anyway?

I was sitting in a bare room with tables and chairs, listening to my ipod and slogging through the unpleasant task of grading national exams, when I was yanked into a conversation among several male professors.

“Do you do Geração Biz?” asked one teacher, probably in his thirties.

“No, but I’m familiar with the group,” I replied.

“Do you know what they do?” he asked.

“Yes, they promote peer education about HIV/AIDS and other health-related topics in schools,” I said.

“I think it’s terrible!” he exclaimed.

I was completely caught off guard by his response. Up to this point, the only criticism I had heard about Geração Biz was that there weren’t enough active groups in Mozambican schools. Of course, I didn’t need to ask him to explain himself since he immediately began ranting about his frustrations. The other professors, also middle-aged males, chimed in or took the platform from time to time. Feeling like the accused and unable to get a word in edgewise, I just sat and listened.

The whole “conversation” lasted the better part of an hour. The crux of their argument was that teaching sex education to students, particularly young girls, was promoting promiscuity. The idea is that if you teach kids how to have safe sex, you’re telling them that it’s OK for them to do it.

We’ve all heard the same argument in the United States many times. It’s one of the driving forces behind “abstinence-only” education and other stupidity. I sighed over the ignorance of it all.

But the teachers made a second point that actually made sense. They accused “us,” as in all foreign influence in Mozambique, of forcing modern ideas on a country that wasn’t ready for them. After all, Mozambique as a nation is very young. It only achieved independence in 1975 and then spent 17 years embroiled in civil war. It hasn’t had time to modernize and even today the prerequisites for a social movement, primarily education and access to information, are unavailable to a large segment of the population. So, how can we expect Mozambicans to embrace the types of social change that took decades to implement in our own country?

One might counter that Mozambicans write their own policies. So... are foreigners really at fault? I would argue that we are. Foreign aid accounts for 50% of the Mozambican government’s budget. As a consequence, the government adopts policies that mirror those of donor countries. The last thing Mozambique wants is to offend a country like the United States that dangles foreign aid like a carrot that it can yank away at any time.

I’m reminded of a talk that the former American ambassador gave to our group during training. It was immediately after the Mozambican elections and he was not at all pleased. He spoke frankly with us and said that the US would threaten to remove aid if the government continued to permit election fraud and block rival parties. I felt that the actions of the Mozambican government during the election were wrong, but talking to Mozambicans I never once heard anyone complain. In fact, nobody cared at all.

So, my question is not whether sex education or women’s rights or democracy or any of the other causes that foreign donors champion are good or important. My question is: where is the momentum for these causes coming from? When I talk to Mozambicans, many of them seem either to passively accept or to actively resist those causes. Young people support the causes more than older people, but in general I don’t see the same undercurrent of activism and awareness that usually precipitates social change.

Looking back at milestones of American history - women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, the PRIDE movement - all of our social revolutions came out of a great struggle that took decades of activism and education. We’re still fighting these battles today. The difference is that the achievements we’ve made were the result of will of the American people. Our victories, therefore, are powerful because they are our own.

In Mozambique, the process is reversed. A change is imposed on the government and it slowly trickles down to the people. In most places, but especially in rural villages, tradition and customs are far more powerful influences on people’s behavior than anything the government does. As a result, conflicts arise any time government changes are enforced at the local level. As a public school teacher, I essentially work in a government institution and I have experienced this disconnect first hand. The curricula include topics like sex education, evolution and gender equality that seem to be somebody else's idea that the teachers are forced to follow.

So… in our impatience to liberate the oppressed and modernize thinking in Mozambique are we actually stymying their natural development? By enforcing social change from the top down are we preempting grassroots movements that haven’t had a chance to gain their own momentum?

My last example is an experience I had at the regional REDES conference earlier this month. Two nurses came in to teach the girls about the female reproductive system and give them a condom demonstration. Our Mozambican facilitators took it upon themselves to remove the youngest girls from the audience and send them outside. This was a surprise to several Peace Corps volunteers who, infuriated, sent the girls back into the room. An argument resulted between some very opinionated people that later required damage control.

The Mozambicans who removed the young girls (aged 11-13) argued that they weren’t ready to see a penis and would be traumatized. They also repeated the claim that teaching sex education to young girls promotes promiscuity. The Peace Corps volunteers argued that 12-year-old girls were getting pregnant in our communities and needed the information. No consensus was reached.

Personally, I disagree with the Mozambican women’s claims but I also disagree with the reaction of the volunteers. After all, REDES is a Mozambican organization. Granted, much of our funding comes from the United States government, but I think it’s wrong to pick and choose when we want to listen to our Mozambican counterparts. If they’re not ready to accept change, do we really have the right to force it on them? And if we do, will it have the desired effect?

1 comment:

  1. That's a very interesting commentary. What I hear is the philosophical question of whether we should disturb the natural development of this country's social norms. But, here's an extension of that question: Should we be giving foreign aid or any kind of assistance at all? You could argue that this makes them dependent on outside help and impedes their natural development.

    When we see social disorder in other parts of the world, oppressive dictatorships that rob their citizens of everything including the right to life, or people starving in the wake of civil war, it's hard to sit by and not feel obligated to step in. Problem is, we never do that without a caveat or some underlying agenda. I guess that's just part of the human condition. We are not unconditionally charitable.

    But, these are all hard questions. We see the pictures of starving people in many parts of Africa and pleas for donations. In many parts it seems that the population has grown well beyond the carrying capacity of the local environs. But usually that is precipitated by some social influence that disrupted the natural order of things in the first place.

    Good discussion make me think all the time, and that's really the best help you can give anyone is to cause them to think for themselves.