Liberia, Sweet Land of Liberty! Well, liberty, until it comes to discussions of “controversial” issues such as sex, sexual assault, puberty changes, domestic violence, gender rights, children’s rights and responsibilities, etcetera. Basically, any topic that isn’t deemed comfortable to be discussed between the older and younger generation is considered taboo, abominable or undiscussable in a Liberian household. We live in a culture that stifles the voices of young people when it comes to any issue that is considered “too grown up”.
The effects of imposing silence on particular issues often times turn out to be deafening. When parents stifle the voices of their children, these children grow up to be adults who in turn stifle their children’s voices and the cycle continues. As a result, the society is made up of people who bury their every emotion to the point of becoming zombiefied ticking time bombs.
We have become a society of people who are masters of pushing things under the rug, until the rug builds into an avalanche of issues waiting to come crashing down.
It is an understatement to say that there is a dire need for discussion of these “taboo” issues to be included in child development in Liberia. In this light, we have created this two-part series we’ve termed as The Taboo Series in order to share our opinions on a few of these topics which we believe need to be addressed in our society today. The first part of The Taboo Series will explore the lack of discussion on ‘puberty’ in the Liberian community and the second part will cover ‘sex-education, sexual assault, and domestic violence.’
Picture this scenario, a 12-14 year-old girl with no knowledge of what puberty is or how to deal with it wakes up one morning to blood-stained sheets and underwear. She has no memory of anyone else being in the room while she slept and the stains are blood-red so she’s certain it’s not pee. The girl knows she went to bed alone and on top of all that, her stomach hurts badly.
How freaked out would you be if it were you? You might even think there is something medically wrong with you! Now, prior to this, if your parent(s) or guardian(s) never encouraged any discussions of this sort, who would you turn to? Well, equally confused 12-14 year-old friends would be my best bet. This leaves the children ill-prepared for the emotional and physical changes that come with puberty.
Even the conversation surrounding menstruation is not common in Liberian households. Many parents do not see the importance of talking to their children about what to expect during their first experiences with periods and the reasons they need pads. There has always been a taboo associated with females and their periods because the world has attached some form of “disgust” to the fluids naturally excreted from the female body.
In Liberia, most girls would rather secretly save up to purchase pads than directly ask their parents and for those unable to afford to save up money, they use scraps of cloths instead of pads. Most girls are ashamed to walk into a pharmacy and say they want to buy pads! There is such a stigma attached to the act of periods and the importance of pads that females have become very creative and found a million and one ways to refer to “menstrual period” and “pads” without actually saying the words. Menstruation becomes commonly referred to as “red flower”, “barrolle on camp”, etc. If a girl walks into a pharmacy to purchase sanitary pads, she is expected to refer to them as “blue biscuit” and buy a black plastic bag so nobody would know that she is on her period; as if it’s something she’s supposed to be ashamed of.
The unhealthy shaming culture surrounding girls and their periods has caused many teenagers to stay oblivious to the importance of knowing about their menstrual cycles which inevitably increases the risk of teenage pregnancy for girls who are sexually active.
However, many parents would rather avoid the talks surrounding puberty or menstruation because they somehow believe this state of blissful ignorance pushes off the time and lowers the possibility that their kids will have sex.
In the situation of a young boy growing up, nobody tells him it’s normal to have those occasional wet dreams; nobody tells him about morning wood (early morning erection) and that it’s normal. In Liberia, there are so many tales of “night women” (voodoo practitioners who have sex with people in dreams) that a boy waking up from a sex dream would feel cursed.
Imagine a 13-year-old boy waking up one morning with an erected penis, soiled pants, and moist spots on the bed. He does not recall having a dream and it does not look like he might have peed in the bed, This kid has never had sex before, and he feels like he dare not bring up the conversation with his parents. All he knows about sex is that it is bad and small children should not talk about it, and that it’s “sweet-sweet bad-bad thing” (the common Liberian euphemism for sex).
Now he is stuck with the burden of a secret he shouldn’t and wouldn’t bear if his parents had created the opportunity for discussions about the physical and biological changes that occur as a child grows up. He will later hear the misguided version from one of his friends who may tell him that he wakes up occasionally in morning with an erection and damp underpants because he is cursed. He might even get an infection from using a used razor and shaving improperly because his parents never showed him how to groom himself.
Yet and still our society (older folks) chooses to believe that talking about things like puberty with children is a taboo.
Featured photo by LA Johnson/NPR