By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
In the year 2020, during the COVID19 lockdowns, I got a call from an NGO working with young people in Nigeria. Someone had contacted them to draw attention to the plight of a female student in a tertiary institution who was being blackmailed by one of her classmates.
She had been manipulated into sending nude images of herself, with the aim of being considered pretty enough to enter into a beauty contest. As soon as she sent the photographs, the blackmail started.
She got so distraught that she attempted suicide. I was contacted because the female student is in one of our tertiary institutions in Ekiti State. Thanks to the cooperation of the school authorities, the classmate concerned and his cohorts were arrested.
Everyone who heard about the case asked the question, ‘Why did she send her nude photographs in the first place?’. As I was discussing this case with my team, I was informed that one of the teenage girls in my care (she is fifteen) is being pressurized by a boy in her school to send nude images of herself.
Apparently, demanding and sending nude pictures is a thing with teenagers and young adults these days. In March 2021, as part of activities to commemorate International Women’s Day, I hosted an interactive forum with approximately 25 girls in Junior and Senior Secondary Schools across Ekiti State.
Their ages ranged from 13-16. I encouraged the girls to ask any questions they wanted. One of them put up her hand and asked, ‘Some of my friends say it is not cool to be a virgin. Is it true?’. I almost fell off my chair. It is a good thing that over the years I have learnt how to put on a fairly decent ‘poker face’.
The COVID19 mask-wearing has also helped a great deal. I could not believe my ears. Squirming and trying to keep a straight face, I proceeded to give a brief lecture on the merits of being yourself and having self-esteem and not being railroaded into things you are not ready for, the usual Mummy/Grandma talk.
When I was their age, I would never have dreamt of asking an adult that question, that is if I even understood the question in the first place.
Now, even though I am grateful that we live in more open times when we can address issues of sex and sexuality with adolescents more honestly, I was still taken aback to learn that some girls of that age now consider it ‘uncool’ to be a virgin.
My mind went back to the cases of the nude photos. I kept having all kinds of debates with myself after the event, questioning my hypocrisy and middle-age prudishness, things that ought to be alien to my feminist politics. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that it was not right.
Girls of that age can have crushes, flirt with boys, send illicit messages, steal the odd kiss, but to think being a virgin at that age is not ‘cool’ and put pressure on their peers? To think that the only way you can be popular and liked by boys is to send your nude photographs? No, I don’t get that.
The recent scandal involving minors who are students of Chrisland School, engaging in inappropriate sexual activities, is another reminder that we have a crisis on our hands.There is a dark world out there, alien to many of us but very familiar to our children and grandchildren.
A world in which minors and young girls are targeted and all their insecurities are preyed on to make them caricatures of themselves, leaving them helpless, hopeless and even suicidal.
A world of sex, drugs, pornography, easy money, male predators, enablers and all the ingredients of life on the fast lane. Thanks to social media, we are also seeing the disintegration of young girls and women before our very eyes.
The patriarchal world we live in does not forgive the sins of women and girls the same way it does for men and boys. We need four eyes to watch our children, two in front and two at the back of our heads. Please do not be that parent who says ‘My daughter can never do that’. NEVER say that. Just be watchful. As long as your daughter is a minor, you have the right to be a ‘monitoring spirit’.
Monitor her phone, tablet, laptop, anything she uses to communicate. For those who have older girls, if they are under your roof, they have to live by your rules. Listen to your daughters. Talk to them. Make them feel safe. Let them ask questions, even if it makes you squirm like I did. It is a good thing, at least they trust you, that is why they are asking what you might think are abominable questions. Be there for them. Show them all the pot-holes of life but be prepared to catch them when they fall. If you don’t, others will step in. Teach them to be proud of their bodies and never sell themselves short. Be careful how you introduce/expose your daughters to male friends or colleagues.
You also need to teach your girls and boys about sex and their bodies at a much earlier age than you learnt about it, that is if you learnt at all. Schools should also provide sex education and stop the resistance and hypocrisy. We also need to be clear about certain things. There is no such thing as a minor consenting to sex. If an older person is one of the parties, he/she is a predator. If they are both minors, they need counselling and support. There is no universe in which it is okay to slut-shame a minor.
It is a really rough world out there. Scary things are happening, especially with girls. A lot of our daughters are living dangerously, due to a range of circumstances usually beyond their control. As parents, all we can do is our best, but know that there are more forces out there struggling to undo our hard work. These are supposed to be the best of times for Nigerian women and girls.
We have wonderful women leaders and role models in politics, banking, global institutions, academia and so on. Sadly, for every one of these great women we have thousands of girls at risk, and these girls are the future. We have a lot of work to do to close the gap and we all have a role to play. We need to stop the blame game and get to work with whatever tools we have at our disposal.
•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 the First Lady of Ekiti State, and she can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com