Sex Education in Liberia

Let’s Talk about sex, baby!

You are either having it, talking about it, fussing about it or not having it but still thinking about it (derisively or not). This is a compilation of stories from young Liberians and their experiences with the Taboo subject of sex  with their Liberian parents. Often times in modern society when children are of a certain age, you have “the Talk” with them to educate them. If you have Liberian parents (African parents in general) the age for this conversation never comes. Some people had something that went like this:

Child: “I just got my period.”

Parent: “If you have sex, you will die.”  

What keeps sex out of everyday conversations in Liberian households? I asked a few young Liberians to share their experiences. As the next generation of Liberians, will we talk to our children about sex? Why is it still such a taboo to discuss sex in our families?

Fanoraine:

I was 12-13 years old when I got my first period. I didn’t know what it was. I thought I had hurt myself and was beyond scared. This was around the time my mom had started traveling for work and I was in the care of her sister. So I went to her in panic and she kindly told me that the blood meant I was a woman now and that if I let a boy touch me, I would get pregnant. She also told me to expect it every month and to keep my body extra clean during this time. I was NOT a woman. I was still a child and I had always felt like and been treated like a child. But my aunt was telling me that this change in my body was a change in my status. From child to woman. I was not told the why’s or how’s of menstruation. But I knew to avoid boys during this time because I was beyond scared of pregnancy. For years after I got my first period, I attributed menstrual cramps to me being a bad woman because I still felt like a child. Still wanted to run around and climb trees like my friends, but I was a woman now so, I had to watch how I played, especially with the opposite sex. I was told never to let anyone know I was on my period, never to let anyone see me buy pads because this whole menstruation business was a supposedly nasty business and people, not even other women, should ever be made aware that it was happening to me.

A year after that, I was spending a weekend with my dad when I got my period. Him being a man and probably not understanding the female anatomy assumed I was bleeding because I had had sex. He then called my pastor to say I had slept with an older man and that I was damaged. Pastor called my mom who was in East Africa at the time and she called in panic. Drama ensued and I was taken back to my aunt’s house. That was the last time I had a conversation about my body, or sex for that matter. Everything else I learned, I learned on my own.

Suma:

I remember as kid, my siblings and I would whisper, speculating about where babies came from, but I never mustered the courage to ask my mom. When I first got my period, I sped across the street to an older friend of mine. I knew she had already seen her period and would know precisely what to tell me without having it be too awkward. But it took me weeks before I could tell my mom and when I finally did, the only thing she inquired about was what I had been using as pads. In Liberia, the stigmatization around girls and menstruation, coupled with lack of funds, forces girls to use cloths as pads, and considering how unhealthy that could be, my mom hated it. So, she was very adamant about using sanitary pads instead of pieces of cloth. Looking back now, one would think that was the perfect time for my mom to have “the talk” with me, but no, she did not. I’m 22, and we are still yet to have that very elusive talk I’ve heard so much about.

Cyrene:

After being the baby of the house for years, I was 6 years 11 months when my mom returned home from the hospital after giving birth to my sister. I was a curious bean. The confusion and curiosity of how or where the baby came out from drove me insane for days. I would sneak into the bathroom to pretend to use the toilet before my mom would take showers, or creep into her room when she was dressing, in hopes of resolving my curiosity. I expected to see a hole, maybe in the middle of her tummy or something. She noticed my confusion and called me out on it. The need to get an answer surpassed my shyness, and so I asked directly, “where did the baby pass?”

Over the years, when I shared my ‘the talk’ story with others, it is often criticized as having been too early, but I don’t feel that way. My mother detailed,cautiously worded, but realistically upfront, the process of conception and delivery while I sat at the edge of her bed, not knowing what most of it meant at the time. By 11 years old when I first saw my menstruation, that conversation from 5 years before came in handy. I knew to get a pad from my older sister’s drawer and then inform my mother. Growing up with older sisters who were raised with similar forthcoming unorthodox realness gave me accessibility to a knowledgeable experience which, I later realized, was a rarity for many of my peers, other relatives, and even my mother.

At age 25, it is gratifying knowing that I was trusted with a specific and crucial knowledge at the tender age of 6, which has helped me approach sex responsibly and safely. It saddens me that many young Liberians do not have this chance at understanding their bodies or the beauty and responsibility of sex.

Jay Hoff Jr.:

I grew up in a home with my cousins and uncles who were mostly older than me. On weekends when I was much smaller, my mom would gather the ones that were older than me and they would have conversations about sex in a gathering they termed as “Biology class”. I wasn’t allowed to be part of that “class” as I hadn’t reached the age of inclusion yet. I would hear wild laughter as my mom would lecture them. I would sometimes eavesdrop and hear snippets of their conversation and I would either cringe or laugh.

My mom is very bold. I never got to have my own official “Biology class” lessons but she would have “The Talk” with me in fragments. “Sex isn’t something you can just jump in oh”, she would say. “During our time, we didn’t know and never had access to condom like you guys have now, so if you don’t use condom and go get someone’s daughter pregnant, you will be the first baby pa (father) to live with his in-laws.”

Part two of this piece will be posted on 4/17

Featured picture by Caroline Henshaw

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