Arewa Voices

"Like A Lollipop": How Purity Culture Affects Sexual Health

By Aisha Kabiru Mohammed | Apr 11, 2024

In Nigeria, sexual purity and chastity is ingrained in women from a very young age. Conversations on sex and sexual health are forbidden conversations that the average Nigerian avoids in everyday discussions. 

Even when these conversations are of benefit regarding sexual education for younger children Nigerian parents sometimes dodge the subject or simply tell their children not to touch the opposite sex. In Northern Nigeria, with a seemingly Muslim Majority population where Islamic values of modesty (haya) this same conservatism exists possibly even more than what obtains in southern Nigeria.

Purity culture largely involves abstention from sexual activity and it is highly valued. To prevent premarital sex, dating is strongly discouraged. It is advised that women and girls cover up and wear modest clothing to prevent triggering men's and boys' erotic desires. Traditional gender roles are also emphasized in purity culture.

To maintain these standards women have to suppress their sexuality and in most cases, this involves also ignoring sexual and reproductive health. This is often because of the shame attached to consensual sexual encounters. Women are trained from a very young age to believe their virginity is a gift to their husbands. 

According to  Humangle, purity culture has negative effects on women’s mental and sexual health. The most common among them is vaginismus, the body's automatic reaction to the fear of some or all types of vaginal penetration. 

The heavy burden of sexual purity placed on Northern Nigerian women stunts the healthy curiosity for their bodies and how they work. It makes them look at that part of themselves like locust beans only to be brought out when needed. 

In the article cited earlier, a woman was denied testing for PCOS because the process would “disvirgin” her.  This is often the reaction from doctors who have completely absorbed the principles of purity culture and inculcated it into their practice. Women risk losing their lives to life-threatening conditions and diseases. This also applies to STDs testing, women are ashamed and worried about being to be tagged as immoral in clinics and would rather try at home  Simply because of non-existent husbands and unreasonable standards. 

A research conducted in schools across  NorthEastern Nigeria found that Although more than two-thirds (72%) of the girls who were the subject of the survey  had experienced menstruation, most of the students(92% girls) did not know when in the menstrual cycle is an unsafe period(fertile window).

For about half of the students who knew of ways to prevent pregnancy (50.5%), their source of information about contraceptives were the radio/television.

Other sources of information were teachers,  print media, friends/school mates , youth friendly  clinic  and health health  workers. Only about 13% of them got the information from parents and siblings. 

The statistics on knowledge of  sexually transmitted diseases is quite alarming. The only STDs and STIs known to the subjects of the survey are HIV Gonorrhea and Syphilis. A large number of these people only know about HIV.

Most respondents  were of the opinion that young people should be provided with information about reproductive health. However, less than half of them (48.3%) had spoken to someone about their sexual /reproductive experiences in the last year. Of these, there were slightly more  females (52%) than males. 

The results from this survey indicate a gap in sexual education in Northern Nigeria. And unfortunately Northern Nigerian women are at the receiving end of the negative effects.

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