If the Pope wants to end violence in Africa he must talk about sex

Pope Francis waves in 2013

Last week Pope Francis toured three African countries, all of them plagued by internecine bloodshed, calling on their peoples to put an end to the violence. The Pope might not have noticed that the first day of his tour, in Nairobi, coincided with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. He may not even have seen the group of Kenyan demonstrators who turned out to ask for his support in blocking comprehensive sex education from being taught in local schools. Sex education, sexual health and violence against women might have seemed like marginal issues to those planning his African tour. That would be a mistake. If Francis’s mission is to push for an end to violence and for peace and reconciliation, sex education and sexual violence need to be high on his agenda.

On average one in three women globally is affected by violence, including domestic violence and sexual violence. Sexual violence takes many forms, and can take place in different circumstances and settings. According to the World Health Organisation, violent sexual acts include rape within marriage or dating relationships; rape by strangers; systematic rape during armed conflict; forced marriage or cohabitation; denial of the right to use contraception or to adopt other measures to protect against sexually transmitted diseases; female genital mutilation (FGM) and obligatory inspections for virginity. Sexual violence is a major problem in all three countries the pope visited, Kenya, Uganda and the Central Africa Republic (CAR).  Early child marriage, FGM and rape are well documented forms of sexual violence in Uganda and Kenya. In CAR hundreds of thousands of displaced persons are unable to return home due to the threat of violence, which include rape and gang rape, forced marriage, sexual mutilation, abduction and sexual slavery.  

Many people think of sexual violence as a women’s issue. In fact it affects women and men.  Male rape during armed conflict in Uganda is well known; if it is underreported, that is in part due to homophobia and to the fact that Uganda, like Kenya and CAR, criminalizes same-sex relations. The Catholic Church, which has a large following in the countries pope Francis visits, has also not come to terms with same-sex relationships, contributing to the silencing, shame and fear that keep all victims of sexual violence invisible.

For the past two months my colleague Emmy Kahega and I have been working with Love Matters, an international organisation dedicated to on-line sex education for youth, to research young Kenyans’ sexual attitudes and experiences. The Kenyans we have interviewed said they had engaged in sex as early as age 12 or 13 without any knowledge of how to keep themselves and their partners safe. Several of them were raped. They had kept silent about these stories for many years. One girl described her fear when other girls fantasised about their first time and how wonderful it would be. She had been raped and was afraid someone would ask what she thought. Others were silenced by their parents. When the mother of one of our respondents discovered that he was sexually active, three years after he actually started, he was ‘really beaten and told to stop engaging in sex’. Others were told not to discuss such things.

The Kenyan protesters who asked the Pope’s help to stop comprehensive sex education no doubt do so because they want to protect their children. They are shooting themselves in the foot. It is well known that comprehensive sex education delays the start of sexual activity, reduces sexual activity among young people and encourages those already sexually active to have safer sex. If they want to safeguard their kids, they should encourage the Kenyan government’s recent move to consider comprehensive sex education in schools

The young people we encountered have many questions about sexuality. They want to be responsible sexually as well as in other realms of life. ‘We want to protect ourselves from diseases and unwanted pregnancies, and not just engaging in sex’, as one kid told us. Schools, parents and churches do not offer sex education, and often actively prevent young people from accessing it. This is why they go online, where they are less likely to find reliable information than to be deluged by commercial pornography. Research on the kinds of questions that people ask online shows that most of them are unsure about themselves, their bodies, their desires and how to behave in relationships. The questions Love Matters in Kenya encounters most frequently concern the ‘right’ or ‘normal’ size of the penis, and whether their or their partners’ desires are ‘normal’. Such on’line search behaviour suggests that most young people are interested in having warm, loving relationships and pleasurable sex lives. But these desires run counter to the often violent off-line sexual realities that persist due to silence and fear.

Victims of sexual violence are often punished for demanding their rights. In one landmark rape case a Kenyan girl testified against six young men who attacked and raped her on her way home from a funeral. However, it was the victim who was forced to leave her village. In countries where same-sex relations are criminalised, violence against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT) goes unpunished. The ramifications of homophobic laws go beyond the LGBT community: they prevent male rape victims from seeking medical treatment or legal justice, for fear of being persecuted as a homosexual.

To call for an end to violence, while leaving untouched the silence and impunity surrounding sexual violence (much of it committed in the course of armed conflict), seems like a glaring omission. Pope Francis is in many ways an exemplary man. The fact that he is visiting unstable countries amidst a rise in militant violence is exceptionally courageous. But to end violence he will also need to take a stand and speak out against the violation of sexual rights within and beyond the war zone.

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