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African youth reproductive and sexual health- a plight of degeneration?

An opinion piece by Thandwa Dlamini- Manzini, Eswatini

“The myth of black sexuality was simply a myth of excessive sexuality: it held that with the Negro, everything takes place at the genital level” Frantz Fanon quoted in Vaughan 1991:131)

Lately, I have been cogitating on what has been referred to as a ‘social problem’ amongst African youth – teenage pregnancy. Of course, this issue is not unheard of. Sporadically, the news headline ‘Teenage pregnancy figures cause alarm’. The state, the education and health sector, the family institution come under fire. Members of society are infuriated by this problem, everyone is asking ‘Where is the church, where are the parents and guidance? Where have we gone wrong as individuals and collectively?' Over time, finding ways to curb teenage pregnancy ends up in a deadlock-no one seems to be getting it right.

I speculatively ask myself a set of questions- ‘How did teenage pregnancy become a social problem and a catastrophic health issue in Africa?' More significantly, what kind of ideas held by global public health are intrinsic to broader African youth’s reproductive health and sexual issues? What kind of agenda is brought? Also, in what ways have African youth responded to constructions of their sexual health and in the process claim their sexual autonomy and sexualities.

Colonial undertones of African reproductive and sexual health

Firstly, it is imperative to know that colonial ideas have been used to inform and control Africa’s sexual and reproductive health. Historically, Africans were regarded as promiscuous, uncontrollable sexual beings that needed to be regulated. The control of African sexuality was mandatory to maintain western dominance in Africa. By ‘controlling African genitals, they could ‘control Africa’, her resources and economies. We see the implicit prevalence of these ideas in contemporary sexual reproductive health, where sexual behaviour is gauged by indicators- birth rate, HIV/Aids infection rate, fertility rate etc. As a result, most sub-Saharan Africans have been subjected to strict mechanisms of monitoring, control and compliance. Global public health’s objective here is to promote safe sex, eliminate unwanted pregnancies and HIV/AIDs infection rates using risk-based interventions. However, what global public health misses in its interventions is the importance of sexual pleasure, well-being and the presence of non-reproductive sexualities.

Rethinking Teenage pregnancy and misconceptions of motherhood

Teenage pregnancy has been widely attributed to the youth’s negligence, economic and spiritual impoverishment. Undeniably teenage pregnancy is deeply problematic but these reasons are given at face value. One needs to pause and challenge the ‘problematic’ nature of teenage pregnancy. This is not owed to its increasing rate, but because of a shift in how young women and sexuality and reproduction were seen. The shift from 'single motherhood' and `the illegitimate child' to `teenage pregnancy' has allowed for the exclusion of a group of women based on their age. Young women are presented as ‘non-agentic beings’ with no rationality. Black feminist historian, Angela Davis attributes the negative response to teenage pregnancy to the bleak chances of teenage marriage. Young fathers are hardest hit by youth unemployment and cannot support their children. As a result, there is increased economic dependence on the elderly and intergenerational families. This works against the promotion of a nuclear family form which emerged from the West. To me, it seems the nuclear family is slowly losing its relevance with respect to social and economic realities in Africa.

Moreover, single motherhood as an alternative family form has been treated as the anomaly. Perhaps we need to think of the possibilities of young black women’s desires and their ability to have a choice to motherhood. In South Africa, some teenage mothers have been reported to desire motherhood and accept their positions as committed and responsible mothers. However, the state does not provide sufficient support in terms of quality, sponsored education and health facilities as well as personal and career development opportunities. Their fighting chance with hegemonic state powers can produce a certain level of resilience.

Adults are the only group of people who are allowed access to sexuality, children’s sexual rights are taboo and indicate a moral crisis. It is no surprise then, that youth sexualities are also treated as deviant, non-consensual, dangerous to reproductive health and degenerate. I think the starting point is to acknowledge, as Ugandan feminist legal scholar, Sylvia Tamale advocates, that children are sexual beings, whose sexualities evolve from conception through infancy, childhood, puberty, adolescence and the teenage years. As sexual beings, children have diverse sexual rights and entitlements.

Therefore, children have a right to adequate sex education that would enable them to make consensual and informed sexual decisions. It would also develop the children’s appreciation of their gendered sexual bodies and body parts, and their understanding of the maturing body and maturation processes and cycles.

Claiming their sexual autonomy

African youth continue to use sexual practices from the past and reclaim their sexual autonomy to acknowledge their sexualities in the context of HIV/AIDs. Asembo youth in Kenya use the practice of chodo. Chodo is non-penetrative and the pre-marital sexual play between that prevents pregnancy. With missionary invasion, which came with monogamous marriage practices, the practice of chodo seemed to have diminished. However, the intermingling of boys and girls continues to be highly valued today although sexual penetration before marriage is still considered immoral, even though it is considered inevitable. In Malawi, young women reported that they prefer traditional birth attendants as a source for abortions. African young people are owning their sexualities by forming LGBTQ+ societies and petitioning for the right to free contraception, the availability of male contraception and safe abortion. Overall, it is important for the state to acknowledge diverse sexualities and desires amongst young people. This would ensure interventions that promote a sexual debut that is free from violence, coercion or violation.

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