A crude abortion in the back room of a drug store almost cost me my life when I was 19. After this nightmare, I told myself I could never go through that again. But what could I do to prevent it?
Like many girls in Cameroon, I could not discuss sexuality with my peers or my family. My mother, even if she had information about sexual health and contraception, was not able to talk about it with me. In my community, sex education is considered a taboo subject for children. People would have belittled her as a parent.
My friends didn’t have any more information than I did. Unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections were a real issue for the girls of my generation—and today, the story is much the same.
In order to prevent another pregnancy, I thought I had to avoid having anything to do with men. But how could I resist the urge to have sex when I knew the feeling it gives? How long could I keep that promise?
After my bitter abortion experience, I was determined to avoid another pregnancy. But I still lacked basic education to manage my sexuality. I decided to turn to an older friend who had just come in from the coast. It was common knowledge that she was more experienced than my other friends and I were.
She gave us birth control pills to take to ward off pregnancy. There were usually 28 pills in a packet, but we weren’t able to strictly comply with the dosage. Finding time to take the pills when no one was looking was difficult. We had to hide the packets from our parents, and, given the farming system in our village, it was normal for girls to skip doses when we couldn’t find appropriate opportunities to take them in secret.
I watched my friends continue to experience unwanted pregnancies. I was afraid of what I saw happening to them. As young mothers, they faced a lot of stigma and shame. I knew I didn’t want to be a young mother, but I also knew I couldn’t endure another unskilled abortion. I worried that becoming pregnant and carrying the pregnancy to term would expose me as sexually active or force me to drop out of school. And the fear that the girls in our community and I would become barren from our crude abortions kept haunting me. I needed a method I could have confidence in.
My dream came true when I went into town one day to visit my sick auntie in the hospital. While there, I attended a lecture on the prevention of HIV/AIDS. They gave out condoms after the lecture, but many people didn’t take them home. After I learned they could be used for protection, I took all I could. I left them at my boyfriend’s place, where we happily used them.
Later on, I learned my boyfriend was one in a million. Many of my friends who were willing to try my new solution couldn’t because the men in their lives didn’t want to use them. Myths surrounded the use of condoms and other contraceptives. For example, using condoms was seen as a sign of promiscuity, a barrier to sexual pleasure, or a signal that one had less love and affection for one’s partner. I heard myths that a burst condom could kill a lady, or that condoms had the power to make men impotent. The prevalence of these myths is what inspired me to start speaking out on these issues.
Today there is growing awareness on the existence of contraceptives, but taboos and high levels of ignorance are still thwarting progress. I believe people in my community have the right to use contraception and manage their own sexuality. I have dared to talk about this subject that society considers a no-go area. As a result, some parents have branded me as someone who is trying to increase sexual immorality in the community. Still, I have not stopped talking.
For a year now, I have been running the Every Girl for Any Girl initiative. My organization moves from school to school, talking to young girls on issues concerning their sexuality: their anatomy and physiology; possible health issues; emotional changes; the pressures they face and the skills to handle them.
For many girls, our campaigns are their first opportunity to get any of this information. When I introduced a system for youngsters to message me anonymously through SMS, I received over 300 messages in a period of six weeks from over 60 girls. They asked me about sex, menstrual cycle disorders, and rape, among many other concerns.
Last year we worked with four schools. This year we are extending our program to eight schools. But my dream is to establish a social clinic where girls can go at any time to discuss their sexuality without fear of being judged or intimidated.
Many hospital staff members are judgmental towards girls seeking sexual health services, which makes girls afraid to discuss their health issues. I envision a special unit designed to provide counseling and health services, as well as support groups for girls.
Girls today have many of the same questions and fears about sex that I had growing up. In most cases, their parents, the health system, and the school curriculum have failed to provide them with the answers they deserve.
We must give girls the knowledge they need in order to make informed decisions on matters concerning their sexuality. Or they will die from our silence.
Sally Maforchi Mboumien is a contributor from Cameroon. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.