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Opinions of Thursday, 10 January 2019

Columnist: Topafric Media Network

Our Great Resolve: Creating a safer society for females in Ghana

A woman at her most traumatized is a woman recounting her experiences with men. Certainly, not every experience is bad but there are enough to make the average girl the world over suspicious of men at the very least. I am of course referring to experiences with unwanted sexual attention or advances.

In the Ghanaian experience, nearly every man is guilty of at least one of the following: of failing to stand up for women against predators, of failing to adequately prepare young girls before leaving them at their own mercies, of failing to listen to women or take them seriously, of condoning sexist behaviors by men well-nigh everywhere , of failing to educate young men about proper sexual behavior, of failing to hold men who prey on little girls wholly accountable, of promoting and internalizing ideas about self-worth that too often leads to improper and at times dangerous choices and of failing to talk openly and honestly about all of these.

When a 10-year old girl is raped by her best friend`s father and paralyzed as a result, and now at 13 remains in desperate need of medical help the cost of which her family could not afford; when a 4-year old girl is raped and killed by a 30-year old man this past December in Ghana`s Eastern Region; when a woman can only expect to be harassed by men up close and aggressively anywhere in the nation`s capital; when child molesters receive lesser punishment than hungry burglars in a country starved by youth unemployment, it calls into fair question not only what our priorities are but also what our values are as a people.

How did we arrive at this point where a woman-child of just 4 years of age is defiled and killed by a 30-year old man without repercussion? How did these kinds of incidences become so commonplace in a nation where the church bell rings closer to the ear than the alarm clock and where the call to prayer at the mosque wakes the deepest asleep? Male sexual aggression is of course not limited to any one particular place and I suppose this very conversation could be had with regards to any other nation on earth.

Nonetheless, the Ghanaian situation stands out in its unexamined contradiction; a religiously and culturally conservative society where sex is either taboo or sacred should not have an open culture of sexual misbehavior and violence and a weak system of response to such violence.

I have long been of the belief that our society has done more bad than good in assuming that by not talking to kids about sex they will not have it. That is certainly not true as evidenced by the frequencies of teenage pregnancies in the country. Not only is sex a natural desire, but the society in which we live is also hypersexualized. From magazines and songs to rumors around town, it is everywhere except at home. Given this condition and environment, would it not be a surprise if kids do not experiment with sex out of pure curiosity at the very least?

However, the absence of an open and free culture of friendship between young boys and girls means that most frequent interactions between the sexes are secret and parents and guardians only take note after something goes wrong. Even then, kids are reluctant to open up to their parents or guardians and the fear of punishment and of being shamed often leads to experiment with solutions that are sometimes deadly.

But the problems of lack of communication about sex and the absence of a culture of free and open friendship between boys and girls have not unwanted pregnancies as their only likely end. To begin with thelack of communication, there is certainly no guarantee that talking openly and honestly to kids about sexual desires, sexual partners and red flags would fully guard them against mistakes or keep them out of the ways of sexual predators.

However, we maximize kids ability to make better choices when we help them make sense of their desires; we maximize their chances of being safe when we alert them to red flags in the community; finally, we give them and ourselves a better chance of arresting problems right from the beginning when we make it easier, not harder, for them to communicate with us about all things of significance that affect them. Otherwise, not only would they be underprepared and overwhelmed by unexpected and unwanted advances towards them, but the fear of what might happen if they tell us may cause them to keep silent, endure abuses and protect their abusers.

The absence of an open and free culture of friendship between boys and girls in our society is evidenced by the fact that there are very few married couples, especially non-millennials that had been friends with each other before marriage. Too often, the first meaningful interaction for a man with a member of the opposite sex occurs after he is married. Kids are thought of as the innocent and curious creatures who when spoken to about sex and given free and open access to friends from the opposite sex, sooner or later they would experiment with it.

Here in the West, it is not uncommon for a child to spend the night at his girlfriend`s or boyfriend`s home. Looking at it from the outside, one cannot help but ask the obvious question: how could a man-child or a woman-child not old enough to be left alone at home for any significant period of time or be allowed to sign anything of significance by themselves be left alone behind closed doors with a stranger overnight?

However, there is immense value to open and free friendship between a boy and a girl which does not necessarily involve sleepovers. Through the daily and often mundane rituals of friendship, a better understanding of the other is had and the mystery that is sex is demystified and made far less interesting; what is sensitive to the girl is learned by the boy at a time when his beliefs and senses are still receptive to change; what she likes and dislikes and what she finds appropriate and inappropriate are internalized by him; vital communication skills are nurtured; equal appreciation for one another is developed; misconceptions and stereotypes about what she wants, thinks, how she should or wants to be approached and what she really thinks or means are tested and discarded through free, open and healthy friendship between boys and girls.

In the absence of a culture of free and open friendship between boys and girls, the social and emotional intelligence and communication skills that one is likely to develop through the free and unchoreographed interaction with members of the opposite sex are made difficult to acquire. This vacuum is filled by misguided expectations and notions about what turns her on, the message behind that smile, what she really means by this or that move and what she expects from a guy which are bound to cause problems when theory does not align with reality.

I argue not that the problems of our society as they pertain to sexual harassment and violence are entirely reducible to the lack of an open conversation about all things sex and the absence of a free and open culture of friendship between boys and girls. These do not, and could not, explain why a grown man would defile a woman-child of no older than 4 years. However, if Kwadwo has had close female friends since childhood, there is a good chance that he would be less quick to act on the assumption that Habiba is infatuated with him simply because she is nice to him and likes his company. And in a society filled with Kwadwos, Habiba does not only have to worry less about what her smile at Kwadwo could cause her, but she could also count on him (as her dear friend) to come to her aid when she is harassed or attacked by someone else.

There still remains an opportunity for us to create a more equal and safe society for women. Regarding sex, perhaps it is time we see it less as a taboo for the young and unmarried and more as a natural desire that is morally guide-worthy. As parents, guardians and older siblings, we must be proactive in helping the young and innocent make sense of both the emotions and desires inside them as well as the people around them. Strict discipline might serve an end but it is difficult to see which exactly when it prevents a child from talking to its parents about an uncle`s sexual advances.

The goal must be to protect kids from the physical and emotional damage of being robbed of their innocence and to teach them enough about sex so they do not experiment with it out of peer pressure, curiosity or with individuals who might not have their best interest in mind. And when parents and guardians become aware of unwanted advances towards a child by a relative or an associate, justice should not be viewed negatively as in through the lens of the perpetrator. Too often, damage to family reputation and relationships are weighed above the protection of the victim. A more positive and constructive way is to look at justice as a way to help victims heal, get back on track and to protect them and others against such crimes in the future.

For young boys especially, it is important to impart to them that sex is not the source of manhood or even pleasure; the source of manhood is character and the source of sexual pleasure is the affection that two individuals have for one another. We must instill in young boys the values of free, open and healthy friendships with girls so they are not informed about each other primarily by secondary sources. A society in which these kinds of objectives are pursued is likely to reduce sexual misbehaviors arising from curiosity, miscommunication, apathy and insecurity. Such a society is also more equal along gender lines which boosts the capacity of women to stand up for themselves. We cannot reverse what is natural; sex is a natural desire that cannot be reversed in kids by simply avoiding the topic.

This desire was true yesterday, it is true today and it will be true tomorrow. However, while we cannot reverse it, we could pursue it in ways that leave no victim behind. When we create a society in which girls are equal to boys; where free and open friendship between the sexes is the norm instead of the exception; a society in which both boys and girls are able to talk to their parents or guardians about all things sex in a responsible manner; and finally, a society in which the welfare of children takes precedence over family reputation or kinship ties, then we give ourselves a better chance at creating a freer and safer society for girls. Certainly, such society is one in which a 4-year-old girl may die of laughter, not of rape.