Thursday, May 28, 2020

Botswana faces death by sexual shame?

One of the many “menaces” that has kept fire churches’ prophets busy in Botswana is the “sex demon.”Scores of Batswana who are struggling with strong libidos and unmarried couples who have been guilt-trippedout of their “healthy sexuality” have in recent years been making a bee line for fire churches to have their “sex demons” exorcised.

The “sex demon” is not only a menace to fire churches, almost an entire generation of sexually active Batswana is encountering crippling sexual shame as they wrestle with their sexual desires and interests. Kgomotso Jongman, psychologist and owner of Jo’Speaks in Gaborone says, “Individuals begin to develop healthy or risky behaviours during their adolescence, making this an influential time of life.

There are multiple influences that play a role in the educational development of youth, such as family, friends, religion, and schools. Abstinence-based sexual education was rooted in the approach that choosing not to be sexual outside of a committed, monogamous, adult relationship was the best protection from exposure to sexually-transmitted infections and/or unplanned pregnancy. But, along with abstinence-only education came the concept of purity and the morally-based belief that remaining pure from sexuality until marriage was a good, moral and desired choice.

The purity movement infused sexual education with a notion that our sexual urges are immoral. It’s difficult to grow into a healthy sexual being when you are told by religious parents and/or church leaders that ‘God created sex to be something beautiful and pure but it should only be enjoyed in marriage. And that you have to be a virgin, preferably having no sexual activity before marriage, no masturbation and definitely no homosexuality.”For decades, sexual education in Botswana has been shaped and influenced by moral and religious forces. Abstinence-only education, where students and people in general are taught that abstinence, and choosing not to be sexual, is the best and safest option is only one aspect. It has largely shown to have the potential to actually increase problems and risk of engaging in sex without condoms or preparation.The proliferation of so called “fire churches” in Botswana has tended to reinforce the country’s socialisation that sex is the worst thing a person could do outside of wedlock.

Quite commonly, this domestic invisible and unspoken rule laced with religiosity, taught people to view sexuality as sinful. For years, Botswana has been living with this notion under the guise of religious values. Rather than encouraging courageous conversations to help us understand our sexuality better, dogma stands to stifle and silence learning. The same innocent story of the Garden of Eden, with its harmless intentions, teaches that girls make “bad” choices for tempting Adam to eat the forbidden fruit.

The notion of sexism is shaped from these powerful, stories, which have unfortunately, withstood the waves of social change. Dr Sethunya Mosime, senior Sociology lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “back then even if you weren’t raised in a Christian household, you were still raised in a religious culture, especially in Botswana where the church was and is still important. This religious culture was heavily influenced by at least one of the major world religions. According to how fierce the religious climate you lived in was, you would have learned that God hears all lustful thoughts. You would have been taught that sex before marriage is immoral and punishable with hellfire. That masturbation is dirty. Homosexuality is a perversion.

Abortion is murder. Religion tells people that they must abstain from masturbation because Jesus is always watching them. They are warned not to engage in pre-marital sex, and cautioned of the shame and horror that will befall them if they do. As adults, people develop the inner religious police. The inner religious police ensure that people stay obedient) to the dogmas and creeds of Christianity. Their job is to constantly filter their thoughts and feelings through the use of shame and guilt. Anything judged as not being “biblical” is locked out of the conscious mind and repressed.” It is no wonder Sexual education has been a lightning rod of controversy in public schools for years. The debate over sexual education is particularly heated now, in a time when teen pregnancy rates are persistently high and the HIV/AIDS epidemic is having a devastating impact on young people.

This centres on one crucial question: whether providing young people with full and accurate information makes them more or less likely to engage in sexual activity.  A study on the sexual behaviour of Batswana youth revealed that the country needs to start discussing sexuality and HIV/AIDS with its youths if it is to win the war over the disease. Although the study was conducted about ten years ago, its findings are very instructive.The study: The Sexual Behaviour of Young People in Botswana by UNICEF “was carried out because Botswana has one of the highest rates of HIV prevalence in the world.

Currently, almost 40% of the population aged 15-49 is HIV positive and, in the north, prevalence has reached 50%. HIV infection is the main challenge to the reproductive health of young Batswana, but other factors such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pregnancy, and gender roles in sexual decision-making are also important.”It emerged from the study that, “although most young people in Botswana have heard about many aspects of sexual and reproductive health, far fewer have detailed knowledge. Most youth can name the symptoms of AIDS, but few can accurately name all the modes of transmission. Worryingly, many name incorrect modes of transmissions such as kissing or sharing plates with a person with HIV.

Many young people believe that HIV is always transmitted from mother to child and very few can accurately describe the progression of HIV to AIDS. This means that they have little understanding of how the virus is linked to AIDS-related illnesses and, therefore, cannot fully comprehend the concept of living positively with HIV. Without a deeper knowledge of HIV and AIDS, young people find it hard to personalise their risk of HIV infection and remain ill-equipped to avoid high-risk activities.”

The study further revealed that, “HIV is still not real to the majority of Batswana youth. Many do not realise that it is relevant to them and their families; they assume that they are very unlikely to contract the virus and do not believe that their friends may be HIV positive. This lack of recognition has meant that there is still a great stigma attached to having HIV and only 11 people have ever gone public about their status in Botswana. Many young people feel that anyone known to have HIV or AIDS should be isolated from the rest of the community, regardless of whether they show any symptoms or not. For example, the majority believe that a teacher with HIV should not be allowed to carry on teaching and many admit that they would not go to a shop if they thought the shopkeeper was infected.

Although attitudes are very positive about condom use, the main reason for using condoms is the prevention of pregnancy and some girls use two types of contraceptive simultaneously. Most young people feel it is unrealistic to believe that a condom can be used during every sexual act. This attitude and the denial of personal risk of HIV infection clearly undermine the significance of the positive attitudes about condom use. Also, many girls feel that they could not insist on using a condom if the boy refused, even if she suspected that he had an STI. Again, this belief does not seem to include the fear of HIV, but only of other more visible STIs.”

The study also revealed that “by the age of 20, half of all males and females had had sex. This is below figures from the mid-1990s, but still shows that the onset of sexual activity is not being delayed significantly. The average age at first sexual intercourse was 17, the same as it was in the early 1990s, showing that young people who do become sexually active are doing so at a young age. Condom use rates were quite high, at 80%, which is similar to the findings from the mid-1990s, but many sexual events were not planned in advance. The number of casual sexual partners of sexually active youth may even have risen, but the average number of regular sexual partners appears to have declined. While more young people are using condoms now than in the past, many are having problems with these condoms and do not use them on all occasions.” 

Religion is a conservative force based upon a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe. The difficulty with religion and traditional beliefs is that they are slow to change; even in the face of global pandemics like HIV/AIDS. Then there is the popular culture and mass media which often promote sexual ideals that are mainly characterized by sexual pleasure. As a result,there is a tide of young people feeling immense shame about their sexual urges, desires and behaviours as they encounter the world of sexuality available outside the confines of these moral fantasies. The youth can use their smartphones to see all the sex they want, or they enter universities where they find that their newfound freedom is exhilarating and intimidating.

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.