Sex, Culture and Human Rights: An African Leader Breaks the Silence

Josina Z. Machel

An African leader breaks the silence on sex, culture, and human rights, and asserts that Africans together need to foster a generation of young people that is empowered with knowledge, and that values such as honesty, responsibility and service, in order to make safe and responsible choices about their sexuality.

This article is drawn from a speech given by Josina Machel at the 4th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights earlier this month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Machel is a gender activist and a social entrepreneur and a member of the Board of Directors of the International Women’s Health Coalition.

I was flabbergasted to note that less than
25 percent of the people here at the Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights are under the
age of 30…at a
conference where we are discussing African issues on a continent where at least 60 percent of the people
are under 30 years old.

So my question is: where are the people that
we’re talking about?  Where are the
people we are making decisions about?

The statistics I am about to tell you have
been repeated time and time again throughout the conference:

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Today’s youth is the largest generation of
youth ever: 1.2 billion people worldwide are between the ages of 10 to 19.

And another 1.2 billion are between the
ages of 0 to 10.

Some 10 million of these young people are living with HIV, 6.2 million of
which are African. 

These statistics bear repeating because ultimately,
it’s about people, not numbers.  And
all these people represent the failure in the way we deal with our issues.  We don’t deal with the faces, we deal
with the numbers.

In fact, ten years ago I was in a conference
here in Ethiopia, and we were discussing gender, HIV, and young people.  The issues we are talking about today
are the same ones we were talking about ten years ago.  And the things that we did not talk
ten years ago are still not being discussed today.  If we don’t talk about these underlying
issues, we will be in this same room ten years from now. 

We can talk about gender, we can talk about
HIV education, but when it comes down to it, we tiptoe around the influences
our cultures have on our sexualities, in our bedrooms. 

It’s about the fact that the moment I get
into a bedroom with a man, my culture jumps into bed with us:  Everything I do and think about is
influenced by my culture:  Who
shuts off the light?  Should I undo
his zipper?  As a woman, am I being
too forward or should I act more modest? 
There is no one in this room that will not tell me that these questions
and fears don’t jump into bed with them too.

The second issue that we must address is
access to sexual and reproductive health services and information.
Seventy-six percent of people living with HIV and AIDS are women, and one-third of all these women are
between the ages of 15 and 24.

Something is not right. Somehow,
the world is failing to teach young people how to build equality in relations
and protect themselves.  We are not
taught how to value ourselves enough. 
With these statistics, we might as well declare that you failed our

And the third, the issue I began my speech with,
and perhaps the most important, is the participation and rights of youth. 

The fact that an estimated 20 million unsafe
abortions occur every year, illustrates how the three issues I mentioned
above—culture, lack of access to information and services, and the overarching
issue of human rights and youth participation—intersect and overlap. 

Let’s imagine I am an unmarried fifteen
year-old girl, and I come to you and say that I’m pregnant.  The first thing you will say is “you’re
having sex?  And you’re
unmarried?  What are you doing?”

questions come from culture.  Since
I have no one to help me, I try to find information about what I should do and
what services I should seek.  But,
I have no access.  
Even though
abortion is legal in almost all countries to save a woman’s life and in
three-fifths of countries to protect her physical and mental health, safe
abortion services are often not provided by public health systems or are of
poor quality. 

In this entire scenario, the issue of rights
is overarching.  From the beginning
of this story, what isn’t about human rights?  My right of choice, my right to have sex, my right to
confidentiality, rights to decision-making, my health and my future?

The points above and numerous studies have demonstrated
that today’s youth is growing- up in a world changed by AIDS but many still
lack comprehensive and correct knowledge about how to prevent HIV infection and
deal with it.

The 4th
Conference on Sexual Health and Rights is an important venue for strengthening
the dialogue throughout Africa on the importance of promoting and protecting
sexual rights and health for young people. 

The point to
highlight here is the promotion of DIALOGUE. A dialogue entails an interchange
of information, facts and opinions on a determined subject. The subject of
sexuality and reproductive health is still surrounded by taboos, misconceptions
and cultural myths in our continent. In spite of the various efforts in the
past, young people in particular are often overlooked and sidelined.

It is imperative for all of us to recognize
that our strong cultural identities and nuances as well as a significant level
of ignorance on how these work and influence our behavior are at the root of
the HIV-AIDS pandemic. For too long now, much too long, we have been hiding in
cultural excuses and “no-go comfort zones” as ways to avoid scientific
investigation which would provide empirical evidence for appropriate and
customized messages and interventions.

We have been designing strategies to address
a modern-day disease with methods that are contemporary, but are totally
unsuitable and incompatible with our way of being and living in the continent
which is still based on old traditions and practices.

This can be reversed by the adoption of continuous, honest, and
rigorous engagement between the various generations and societal groups on
issues such as gender inequality, sexual relationships, sex and sexuality. It
is about time that we engage the custodians of culture in our communities to
understand the intrinsic values underpinning gender and sexual norms, practices
and behaviours. The perpetuation of the fear and reluctance to speak about,
question and investigate the
cultural beliefs
and influences on our sexuality is plain and simply killing us.

We all here in this room come from a culture
where traditionally, children and young people are seen as both the present and
the future, so I have always believed it is our responsibility as adults to
give children futures worth having. In the past years I have been shocked and
angered to see how shamefully we have failed in this responsibility.

As Her Excellency Advocate Gawanas said at the
conference’s opening plenary, “Africa’s time is not coming—Africa’s time is

THIS is the time to entrust us young people with the right to participate
and redefine our vision and perspective, to design and equip them with plans
and the tools, to build a healthy and egalitarian future.

Through my work and as a Board Member for the International Women’s
Health Coalition, I’ve had the privilege to meet outstanding young advocates
from nearly every region of Africa. 
Some of them are here to make our voices heard and develop a strategy
for moving our agenda forward in our countries and our continent. 

I’d like to request that the young
people here today to please stand and repeat after me:

No more decisions are made ABOUT ME WITHOUT ME…

WE are the future.  All of us
as Africans together need to foster a generation of young people that is
empowered with knowledge, and values such as honesty, responsibility and
service, in order to make safe and responsible choices about their sexuality.

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