Noemi, 24, is the youth network co-founder and coordinator for IPPF’s Member Association, Santé Sexuelle Suisse/Sexuelle Gesundheit Schweiz. Here, she shares her experiences and thoughts on the impact COVID-19 is having on sexual healthcare and young people, and talks about how the crisis can offer opportunities.
The Impact on Sexual Healthcare
Under normal circumstances, I’d be conducting strategic planning and advocacy work. I would be planning and implementing actions, campaigns and events for the Youth Network, and coaching, motivating and training youth volunteers.
The COVID-19 situation is impacting and intensifying my work. We have to focus on the most essential and basic needs concerning SRHR, which are now under threat. We have had to communicate as quickly as possible that abortion services are still available in all Swiss hospitals. The abortion rate dropped tremendously at the start of the pandemic, because women were afraid to go to the hospitals or didn’t know that abortion services are still provided. We contacted all the family planning centers that provide services concerning sexual health. We wanted to gather best practices in these times concerning the provision of contraception, including emergency contraception. We are closely monitoring the situation as best as possible to intervene in the media or get in contact with hospitals and pharmacies as soon as possible to keep people updated on services.
Getting Creative on Social Media
Next to the monitoring and political work, I started a creative initiative during the COVID-19 isolation. With our Youth Network we created an artistic competition on our FB and Instagram platforms on issues such as masturbation, menstruation, coming out, female genitalia, and pornography.
The aim is to enhance creativity and allow young people to reflect on sexual and reproductive health and rights in a creative way. The aim was also to offer something fun and positive in this difficult time. As a prize, we are awarding sex toys from a small queer sex store in Switzerland.
The project has a lot of success; there are a lot of young people in Switzerland participating and thanking us for this initiative. Next to that we inform the young people in Switzerland through our social media channels about sexual health services which are still in place.
Opportunities in a Crisis
I’m sincerely hoping that this crisis helps to find sustainable solutions to problems and gaps in the health system, particularly concerning sexual and reproductive health, which have become visible during the pandemic.
We could use this crisis for good and advocate for better access to abortion care. It should be made possible to consult via telephone or get medical receipts with online forms. Moreover, the temporary management of medical abortions – with mifepristone and misoprostol – at home during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy following a telephone or electronic medical consultation, rather than having to take the first dose at a health facility, like it is implemented right now in the UK, could become a long-term solution to improve the access to abortion.
Women’s health and reproductive rights don’t end during a pandemic and we must continue to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights and improve health and gender equality for all during and after the pandemic.
A crisis like this offers an opportunity for innovative and sustainable solutions. It also provides a reclaimed sense of shared humanity, where people realize what matters most: the health and safety of their loved ones, and by extension the health and safety of their community, country and fellow global citizens.
And basic health and safety requires comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care.
Sex education is the teaching of knowledge and understanding of our bodies in their natural sexuality. It’s important for many reasons. Many privileged sectors of society have access to this knowledge and understanding, but in many parts of the world, it can’t be taken for granted.
There is a huge problem with sex education worldwide.
In the United States, a survey showed that of 1000 participants between 18 and 29 years, only 33% reported having had some sex education. In the United Kingdom, a similar poll proved that from the same number of participants, 16-17 years old, only 45% felt confident to define their sex education as ‘good’ or ‘very good’.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, the adolescent pregnancy rate is 30%. Mexico has the highest rate of teen pregnancies among the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Sex education simply means teaching young people to know how their bodies work and how to take care of them.
A sex education of quality provides us with the tools to respect our own bodies and the bodies of other people. It enables us to be conscious of the respect sexuality deserves, to prevent sickness, and to value the importance of open, shame-free dialogue.
Sex education should be part of every education. Sadly, many cultures still think that sex education is not a priority matter. Many people believe it shouldn’t be included in basic education because for them, talking about sex is a synonym for shame.
Consistent, high-quality sex education must not be only an option.
The importance of the subject goes beyond the individual. It matters deeply because a correct education can actually save lives. According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), sex educations is:
“[…] teaching and learning aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships…”
Sex education can:
Prevent sexually transmitted diseases
Provide knowledge of how to use contraceptive methods
Prevent unwanted pregnancies
Create understanding of the menstrual cycle
Reduce stigma and shame
A thorough sex education also gives young people an understanding of the boundaries of their body’s intimate space. This helps them to identify sexual abuse.
With the correct information, people are more able to make responsible decisions.
Sex education must be a right. It is about more than just sexual life. Education helps young people to take decisions about their bodies, health and lives in their own hands. This can, in turn, create a better lifestyle for all.
It’s important to visualize the body as the natural thing that it is. If parents and textbooks would teach about the naturality of our bodies, it would be easier for people to demand respect over their own.
In the world I envisage for the future, everyone will receive high quality sex education. They’ll understand what sex is about, and there won’t be more fear or taboo. No child, woman or man will be limited in speaking about sexuality as a personal and social priority.
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Winfred Ongom is a sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate working with the White Ribbon Alliance in Uganda. She tells us about the challenges she faces as a young woman speaking up on issues many would rather keep quiet about – including convincing her mother that her brothers should learn about condoms!
“It took her some time – we still have those fights – but at least there is some progress and she understands the need for them to protect themselves.”
By improving laws, staying open-minded and focusing on human rights-based approaches, Winfred is hopeful that future generations won’t face the stigma, mis-information and discrimination holding young people back today.
“Maybe the children I’ll have will have a better life, where their sexuality is open and they’re free to talk about it.”
This video was made possible through a generous grant from SayItForward.org in support of women’s advocacy messages.
After spending a weekend in bed with flu and catching up on TV, I have an aching sensation (which incidentally doesn’t come from my infected sinuses).
Sex on screen continues to be misogynistic, violent and completely unrealistic.
As young girls we are told to be good. While the definition of good varies from society to society, there seem to be some common traits: if you were born a girl, you should wait for the right man, dress appropriately, not be easy.
But when it comes to sex, mainstream TV teaches us the exact opposite: we should always be ready, willing and, of course, we should never say no. On TV, sex is both the preferred weapon and ultimate punishment, and there seems to be very little in between.
Mainstream TV-makers tend to portray women who have sex in three ways: (1) as manipulators, using sex to advance their agenda; (2) as props, used by the male characters to express their masculinity or to say an intense goodbye before taking off to war (or some other kind of heroic activity); and (3) as a victim of violence.
Needless to say, in all these scenarios, the women involved are beautiful, slim and perfectly groomed – including, to my horror, the penniless sex workers in 19th century Paris.
Women are not the only ones whose sexual lives are gravely oversimplified on screen.
The unfair representations of masculinity – including sexual performance, needs and emotions – are undoubtedly hurting those who do not see themselves as ever-eager, macho sex machines who fear even the idea of monogamy. Not to mention other groups, such as the trans* community or people with disabilities, whose sexual lives are often altogether omitted in popular culture.
It is well established that the representation of social relations is a powerful tool in media, which can have a strong impact on normalisation of behaviour and norms. For instance, it has been argued that the increased presence of LGBTQ+ characters on TV is positively influencing the coming-out and self-realisation in the community.
Other studies show less positively, that media portrayals of rom-com relationships can normalise stalking. So, in absence of other portrayals of sexual encounters, are we doomed to learn our sexuality from what we see on TV screens?
I know, in theory, that the characters and scenes we see in films, ads or TV series are there only for entertainment and not to be taken too seriously. But in practice, I often feel conflicted.
I am angry to see that unrealistic stereotypes about such an important part of human lives continue to be reproduced on TV, and I refuse to replicate them in my own relationships. But, years of media influence had an impact on my idea of what constitutes perfect sex, and I often find it difficult to completely reject the influence of over-sexualised images of women that we all know so well from pop-culture.
I am neither the good girl society wanted me to grow into, nor the women I see on TV. And I’m trying to find my way to be okay with that.
There is little we can do about the decades of unrealistic and misogynistic sex on TV reels, which has undoubtedly influenced generations of viewers. But we can inspire the future. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about it openly, without fear or shame. Let’s talk about our contradictions, misunderstandings and repressed needs. Let’s laugh together at the endless imagination of TV makers coming up with ever-new ideas on how to reproduce old stereotypes.
Sex is a spectrum, full shades, and we should all be encouraged to find our own way in navigating our own sexuality. After all, reality is much more colourful than TV.
As of 2015, Mexico had 119,938,473 inhabitants. 52.4% of those were women, and about 18.5% of the female population was under 20 years old (rough estimate).
In the same year, there were 2,353,596 births and 18.2% of those who gave birth were teenage girls. 49% of the population claimed not to have used any method of birth control during their first intercourse, and 32,752 cases of STDs were registered with 85% of clinic appointments being requested by women.
These numbers help us reach a pretty obvious conclusion: in Mexico, we are doing something wrong with how we approach sex.
Many assert that this dilemma has a direct relationship with a country’s level of income and development. There is logic in this reasoning, as statistics tell us that around 90% of teenage births and nearly 95% of new HIV infections take place in developing countries. However, this cannot be the sole reason why Mexico stands as the country with the highest teen pregnancy rate amongst member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
I believe that there is an important contributing factor that, somehow, tends to go unnoticed. Because, honestly, how do we expect young people to know about sex if we are reluctant to talk to them about it?
According to Mexican psychologist Juan Pablo Arredondo, nearly 80% of Mexican parents avoid talking about sex with their children. And, if they do talk about it, over 50% of them won’t handle it well, imposing their religious beliefs over the facts. And, often, schools are no better. Perhaps the best way to illustrate my argument is with my personal experience…
Like many other middle-class Mexicans, most of my early academic life took place in private schools which, for the most part, tend to be religious. In these schools, the sole mention of sex was taboo, both by the student body and our instructors.
Fast-forward a couple of years and I finally attended a secular school which provided a some sexual education. This is still very much a rarity in Mexico, as the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) doesn’t list sex-ed as a compulsory course in academic programs.
However, instead of learning about different methods of birth control, or about consent, I was shown pictures of STD symptoms and a very graphic video of an abortion procedure. Rather than learning about safe and healthy sex, I was taught to be terrified of the very act of intercourse and the potential consequences.
School was not where I learnt about sex. School is not where many young Mexicans learn about sex.
So, if our families and schools are neither available nor reliable sources, where are Mexicans learning about sex? The answer itself is problematic.
Many men can believe that what they see in porn is a reality – that they are going to find a hairless bombshell who will give her all for his satisfaction (and will, in doing so, magically achieve her own). On the contrary, women are told that sex is an act of love and, even if it is not the most pleasurable of acts, the feelings involved are what matters. If you mix these two beliefs, you end up with troubling scenarios like the one where unprotected sex is seen as ‘most pleasurable’ and the best way to keep your partner content, or the fetishization of lesbian relationships.
Of course, I am not saying that these are the de facto rules of how Mexicans think of sex. Instead, I am pointing out the possible consequences of the reluctance of those in charge of our education system to teach young people about sex.
Blaming our growing socio-economic inequality is easier than realizing that we are making a terrible mistake by avoiding talking openly about such a natural and fundamental topic. In doing so, we are hindering the chances of many young women out there.
In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, Promundo talked to Shereen El Feki about sexuality and gender in the Arab region. Shereen is the author of Sex and the Citadel, a Promundo Senior Fellow, and an acclaimed broadcaster, writer, and academic.
What do you want everyone to know on International Women’s Day?
We must understand the lived realities of men and boys as individuals in order to move toward equality for women and girls, and to effect change. Women face tremendous challenges around the world, but it’s important to keep in mind that, in many cases, authoritarian and patriarchal structures also put men, most of whom are not at the top of the power pyramid, under pressure – thereby undermining their relationships with women.
What makes you passionate, personally, about reaching gender equality, and what is your professional “Pledge for Parity”?
I come from an unusual background in that my father is Egyptian, and my father’s upbringing was very conservative. Yet my mother is British, and my parents raised me in a very liberal and open climate. Growing up in Canada, I was never told, “You can’t do something because you’re a girl or a woman.” It wasn’t until I began researching my book, Sex and the Citadel, and started meeting women across the Arab region of different educational levels, social classes, and geographies, that I began to appreciate the constraints that women in many parts of the world confront in trying to exercise their fundamental human rights. I now realize how fortunate I was not to have encountered these sorts of stereotypes, prejudices, and obstacles that many women – as well as gay men and trans individuals – encounter.
Of course, gender equality is part and parcel of sexuality, which is the focus of my work: including in the promotion of sexual rights for all individuals irrespective of their sexual orientation, or gender identity. My book not only lays out the sexual conundrums and challenges faced by communities across the Arab region, but also offers solutions, highlighting individuals who are pushing back against the taboos and trying to find ways forward. Most recently, since the attacks in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve, there has been tremendous speculation and comment about gender equality and sexuality in the Arab region – much of it dangerously prejudiced and ill-informed. One of the most gratifying outcomes of my book is the chance it has given me to present an alternative view of realities on the ground.
As a Senior Fellow with Promundo, I am also a co-principal investigator of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) in the Middle East and North Africa, which will make a major contribution, by informing opinion and policy on issues related to gender equality and sexuality in the Arab region. Clearly, a better understanding of what is happening on the ground – amongst men, amongst women, and between the sexes – is very important. I’m delighted to be able to have a chance to work with both researchers and activists on the ground, and raise awareness through public debate in order to shift stereotypes.
What is the biggest challenge we face in reaching gender equality, and what are some of the key strategies to achieve this goal?
In the Arab region, we have real issues with gendered laws. These include laws which restrict women’s economic power; restrict their mobility; prevent them from passing citizenship to their husbands or children; require them, in some cases, to have a male guardian supervise their affairs. The list goes on and on. So the law, and legal reform, is clearly a challenge.
But, changing law is not enough. Progressive laws on gender equality are necessary but not sufficient if you don’t also address community and family attitudes and actions. In many cases, in the Arab region, one sees progressive laws, which actually have very little impact in everyday life because of family controls and constraints on women.
This is why IMAGES, which looks at men’s attitudes and behaviors, is also significant. The dynamic between men and women is very complex. So, it is important to start talking to men and start trying to understand how they feel about decision-making capacities within the family, and also to work with women to get them to rethink their own patriarchal norms.
Tell us a little bit about your role as a Promundo Senior Fellow.
As I mentioned, my primary engagement with Promundo is as co-principal investigator of IMAGES in the Middle East and North Africa. While researching my book – Sex and the Citadel – that looks at both men’s and women’s sexuality in the Arab region, it became very clear to me that we actually know relatively little about men in this part of the world.
It was in Kuala Lumpur that I first met Promundo’s International Director Gary Barker at the 2013 Women Deliver conference. Gary and I started talking about the possibility of bringing IMAGES to the Middle East and North Africa. To cut a long story short, three years later, we are heading into the field with the very first IMAGES study in four countries in the region: Morocco, Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, and Lebanon.
How can working with men and boys help to celebrate and advance the social, economic, cultural, and political achievement of women?
To me, it’s obvious: it takes two to tango. Of course you want to engage men and boys; it’s not easy, as I’m learning from working with Promundo, but it’s absolutely vital. I find it interesting that people think that being a man is some sort of patriarchal picnic. My observation – at least in the Arab context – is that it’s actually really tough being a man, particularly being a young man, at a time when the classic milestones of manhood – getting a job, getting married, getting laid, forming a family – are increasingly difficult to reach due to shifting economic conditions and a conservative social and religious climate.
I think the time is ripe to start engaging with young men and boys, helping them recognize the importance of gender equality not just through the lens of how they feel about women, but also how they feel about their lives as men. I think one of the best ways to do this is to start talking to men and boys, and not to a priori see them as part of the problem, but actually approach them as part of the solution.
I can see this already in some parts of the Arab region. In Egypt, for example, we have some very innovative programs trying to combat sexual harassment. Of course, most sexual harassment is committed by young men, but there are also new non-governmental organizations that have sprung up – like HarrassMap, for instance – that are actively engaging young men, working alongside young women, to stamp out sexual harassment. This work is starting slowly in the Arab region, but I think that it’s a very welcome development and I’m pleased to be a part of an initiative that will hopefully give that movement additional momentum.
Shereen El Feki is a Senior Fellow at Promundo. She is an author-academic-activist who works on sexual rights in the Arab, and broader Islamic, world. Along with Promundo and local partners, she is leading the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), a multi-country study of men and gender equality, in the Middle East and North African region. Shereen is the author of the award-winning Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. She is also the former Vice-Chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and is a Professor of Global Practice at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Shereen has a PhD from the University of Cambridge and a BS from the University of Toronto.