By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
Dear Honourable Minister for Education,
I trust all is well with you sir. I hope you do not mind my writing this public letter to you. I thought that since this is a matter of national importance, and the position you have taken is public knowledge, I should table my concerns publicly as well. I took permission from my husband (who used to be your colleague on the Federal Executive Council) before writing this, and he will assure you when you talk that I mean no disrespect sir.
Hon Minister sir, on Thursday November 2nd 2022 you gave a directive to the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC) to remove Sex Education from the Basic Education Curriculum. This statement was made when you declared open the 66th National Council on Education in Abuja which had the theme, ‘Strengthening of Security and Safety in Nigerian Schools for the Achievement of Education 2030 Agenda’.
According to you sir, immediately you saw Sex Education in the curriculum, you called the NERDC Executive Secretary and asked him to expunge it, arguing that sex education should be left in the hands of parents and religious institutions and not be taught in schools in a manner that would further corrupt little children’. The NERDC Executive Secretary then promised to ‘act on it’. Hon Minister sir, I beg you in the name of all that is good, please rethink your position.
A few years ago, I had cause to write a similar public letter in response to a gentleman who had been harassing me and a few of my women’s rights activist friends over our views on the importance of sex education. He decided to write an article mentioning my name and that of my friends as promoters of ‘foreign values’ so I was left with no choice but to respond publicly in an article I called ‘Let’s Talk about Sex’. Shortly after, mutual associates brokered a truce and we have stayed out of each other’s way since. Some of the arguments I will be making in this letter are the same as what I wrote back then, but I have also come across new information sir.
I was First Lady of Ekiti State for eight years (2010-2014 and 2018-2022). During that time I interacted with many adolescent girls who were brought to me for protection due to one form of sexual exploitation or another. One of the cases that will always haunt me, is that of a thirteen-year-old girl who was pregnant, let me call her Tanwa. When I asked her how it happened, she told me that this neighbour of hers said, ‘You cannot get pregnant unless I do it with you more than ten times. I will only do it three times’. With more information and knowledge, this naïve little girl would have been spared her ordeal.
In your speech on Thursday, you said parents and religious leaders should be solely responsible for sex education. I humbly but strongly disagree sir. Times are very hard in the country. Parents struggle to keep food on the table, roofs over their heads and clothes on the backs of their children. Even where education is free, there are still costs which many parents cannot afford. This is why they spend time working to make ends meet.
Yes, I agree they should spend more time with their children, but they do have to work for survival. The religious leaders you mentioned sir, are not always helpful. The majority are true men (and women) of God, but we also have a handful who have no business being left alone with young children. If you are in doubt sir, please ask NAPTIP to show you their national list of Sex Offenders. A good number of teachers who populate the education architecture that you are responsible for, are also guilty of misconduct when it comes to the sexual exploitation of children.
For these reasons sir, as the person responsible for ensuring accountability of the government in all matters to do with education, we expect you to think outside of the box and take steady steps forwards and not backwards. We need to talk about sex to our children. We need them to know about their bodies, rights and responsibilities. This is a task for families, religious institutions, schools and the community at large.
I am fifty-nine years old. Like most people in my generation, my parents never had any deep discussions with me about sex. The most I was told was to ‘stay away from boys’. When I was in High School, there was this classmate of mine who was one of the brightest girls in the class. She also seemed to be the worldliest when it came to matters of boys and sex. One day about six of us were having a conversation about sex.
We were all curious and asked each other questions which, in hindsight, none of us had any truthful answers to. My classmate declared, very confidently, ‘You can’t get pregnant unless you have an orgasm’. The rest of us did not know what an orgasm was, and we were too embarrassed to ask for fear of displaying our ignorance. We believed her because she seemed to know what she was talking about. This friend did not take her final examinations with us. She was pregnant. When I heard the news, I said to myself, ‘she must have had an orgasm’. That was over four decades ago. Every time the issue of adolescent sexuality comes up, I remember the sad case of my naïve, misinformed classmate and that of poor Tanwa from my State.
Any parent would agree that they have primary responsibility for talking to their children about sex and related matters. Parents however do not bring their children up in isolation. Children spend long hours outside of the home in school, and even when they are home, parents are either too busy, too prudish or in too much denial to have these conversations.
We go to great lengths to teach our children right from wrong, yet they still have to contend with peer influences, social media, popular culture, raging hormones and other forces that are not always within our control. If we are concerned about what goes into the sex education curriculum in our children’s schools, we can get involved and ensure that we know what is going on. What we cannot afford to do is throw the baby out with the bathwater. The abuse of children, especially girls, continues unabated. We continue to see alarming rates of teenage pregnancy.
This is the time to arm ourselves with all the information we can and engage our children, their teachers and the government in meaningful ways. Providing our children with the information they need about their bodies, relationships and decision-making in order to protect them from sexual abuse, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, HIV and unwanted pregnancies, does not amount to ‘corrupting them’ sir. The times we live in call for us to be proactive and realistic.
This is what the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) has to say about Comprehensive Sexuality Education, ‘Comprehensive Sexuality Education enables young people to protect their health, well-being and dignity. These programs are basedon human rights principles and they advance gender equality and the rights and empowerment of young people’. UNFPA also goes on to state that, ‘every young person will one day have life-changing decisions to make about their sexual and reproductive health.
Yet research shows that the majority of adolescents lack the knowledge required to make those decisions responsibly, leaving them vulnerable to coercion, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy’.One of my favourites is the UNESCOposition which describes comprehensive sexuality education as an ‘age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sex and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information’.
Whether we like it or not, our children are exposed to situations or people whowill take advantageof their innocence if they do not have the tools to understand what is happening to them and around them. When someone tells a young girl who does not know any better that she cannot get pregnant if she does not have an orgasm, you can just imagine the fate of millions of girls who have fallen victim due to ignorance and misinformation. I have noted from your remarks at the conference that you are very concerned about the high numbers of ‘Out of School’ children in the country.
According to the latest figures from UNESCO and UNICEF, there are at least 20 million children out of school, at least 60% of this figure are girls. This should be linked to the theme of the conference you declared open. We cannot talk about safety in schools if we are not prepared to talk about the rights of girls and boys to bodily integrity, freedom from exploitation, and the right to learn in a conducive environment.
Please sir, kindly summon the very capable NERDC Executive Secretary on Monday and ask him and his agency for further briefings on this matter. There are also many development and education organisations as well as individual experts who I am sure will be willing to offer appropriate technical advice. We need to talk about sex sir, it is not a private matter, it is of national importance. The lives and futures of our children are at stake.
Many apologies for the length of my letter sir, and thank you for reading.
•Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is can be reached at [email protected]