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Rethinking Sexual Agency: The Need to Have Honest Conversations About Sex

*Kumba is a 22-year-old Gambian female who does not talk about sex in public and so when she was approached by The Chronicle to talk about sexual agency, her response was a resounding “no!”. *Khadijah, a Gambian woman who considers herself a feminist and does not have the inhibitions of Kumba, has been shamed for talking about sex in public simply because talking about sex in public does not conform to our cultural or religious practices.  

“Sexual agency is a way of distracting us from our culture and religion,” says 28-year-old *Muhammed, a young and university educated man.  

The reactions above makes one wonder: 

How free and open are women in the Gambian society to talk about their sex lives?

How has our culture and religion masked the sexual rights of women? 

And do women in the Gambia exercise sexual agency or even understand the concept?

Sexual and Reproductive Health Day @UTGSU

Growing up in a Gambian society, talking about sex is taboo and to some extent, unmarried people talking about it in public are sometimes viewed as someone who has “thrown away their dignity”. This perception is mostly because of traditional and religious beliefs and a lot of women don’t even get to enjoy the liberty of sexual agency despite its health benefits.

Sexual agency is the ability to freely make decisions regarding one’s sex life without fear, harassment or shame. This includes the ability to choose who to engage in a sexual activity with, where, when and how, the ability to decline or refuse a sexual activity and for one’s desires to be honoured like practicing safer sex, taking birth control or simply choosing to abstain from it.

In The Gambia, it is frowned upon for unmarried couples to engage in premarital sex because it is against the tenets of our culture and religion. Married couples are also uncomfortable talking about sex outside the four corners of their bed. Because conversations about sex are so restricted, it is difficult for people to understand their sexual agency to begin with much more exercising it. This has left a lot of women living in a society where their sex life is being decided by dominant male figures in their lives such as fathers and or their husbands. However, thanks to the internet and the emergence of feminine activists, the topic is gaining traction and awareness of sexual agency is on the rise.  

 “If you have sexual agency, you know what you want and what you don’t want sexually. You are capable of making and enforcing decisions about your sex life and make your voice heard,” says Dr. Bah, a health practitioner at the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital.

“I grew up in a home where even if a ‘kiss scene’ appears on television you have to change the channel before your parents or elders see you watching such scenes. So in short we don’t talk about sex as we should, it only comes up when a girl staying in the neighbourhood is pregnant outside marriage, and all we are told is to be careful of men. I believe it is the same in the average Gambian home,” said 23-year-old *Amina. 

“The knowledge I have about sex is from what I learned in school, friends or what I read on the internet. It is hard for a girl like me to exercise sexual agency because I am afraid of being shamed. But I believe this should stop. We live in a society where rape is rampant and it’s only because sexual agency is lacking or not properly understood. If both genders respect and practice sexual agency we may be closer to a society where rape will not be rampant,” *Amina added.

photo credit @gfpa-gambia-family-planning-association

Moreover, society continues shaming and pointing fingers at women who wish to exercise their sexual agency openly and freely. In hospitals, an unmarried girl dares not appear in a family planning clinic if she wishes to practice safe sex or take birth control methods. But according to Dr. Bah who spoke to The Chronicle, “…birth control methods are not meant to only prevent pregnancy, some of these methods or pills help regulate menstrual cycle. It also reduces risks of uterine cancer and women who take birth control pills are 50% less likely to get uterine cancer”.

Dr. Zainab of Edward Franics Small Teaching Hospital disclosed that a lot of married women do not practice safe sex simply because of the fear of religion and culture.

She further explained how birth spacing for example is important to a woman’s life and is a form of sexual agency but lots of women in The Gambia don’t have control over it. She said the decision regarding birth spacing is left in the hands of male spouses which shouldn’t be. “It helps parents to raise their kids well within a planned financial budget before the next child comes along and medically, it helps to prevent maternal iron deficiency anaemia and it also boosts the immune system of the mother” she outlined.

Dr. Zainab urged women to feel free to visit any hospital regarding their sexual life. This could be at the Gynae clinic in Banjul, SOS in Bakoteh or even at the Gambia Family Planning in Kanifing, as it will improve their sex life and increase their awareness about their sexual agency and bodies. 

In a society where religious and cultural practices are used to dissuade women from expressing their sexual agency, it will be difficult to ensure that the average woman understands their sexual agency. But through increased education and sensitization, women can develop a healthy view of their sexuality and sex life with little or no inhibitions, fear, threats or being put to shame for simply expressing themselves.  

*Names have been changed for confidentiality

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