Let’s mind our language in sex matters

A pregnant teenager. PHOTO | FILE

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Stigma and shame are a constant reality for pregnant teenage girls and such language only perpetuates this.
  • Poverty, sexual violence and forced marriages have continually been cited as some of the leading causes of teenage pregnancies in developing countries.
  • According to Plan International, teenage pregnancy increases when girls are denied the right to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and well-being.

"Close your legs!" used to be a common phrase in Kenyan households when mothers and fathers berated little girls for not sitting “properly”.  Girls would demurely put their legs together, mortified that they had broken one of the unwritten rules on how to be a girl, and learning quickly that shame was part of the deal.

“Close your legs!” is an insidious phrase. To begin, what on earth does sitting with closed legs have to do with being a girl? Plenty, as we’ll soon find out. Hint: It’s not really about legs.

When the statement is peeled back, one realises that it is intertwined with morality, and inadvertently, sex. Good girls keep their legs closed.

“Close your legs” came to mind recently when NTV aired a clip on the Funga Miguu initiative in Kajiado South sub-county, termed as “a provocative and bold initiative that seeks to stomp out unplanned pregnancies in the area” in response to the rising cases of teenage pregnancies reported during the pandemic.

Provoke people

If all that was in the communication brief was to just provoke people, then the spin doctor or whoever was in charge deserves a standing ovation.

But if the intention was to inspire teenage girls to “close their legs”, then they need to rewrite the script and mind their language.  Stigma and shame are a constant reality for pregnant teenage girls and such language only perpetuates this.

The reality constructed by a phrase like “Funga Miguu” (literally translated to ‘Close Your Legs’) is that girls are the problem.  More accurately, that the girls’ legs are the problem, metaphorically speaking.  It forces a warped narrative that the sometimes traumatic experiences of the girls boil down to the closing of their legs. If this manipulation of reality caused by the phrase doesn’t worry the good people of Kajiado South sub-county, then the problem is bigger than just language.

Poverty, sexual violence and forced marriages have continually been cited as some of the leading causes of teenage pregnancies in developing countries like Kenya so any language that puts the girls at the centre of the blame needs to be rejected.

Teenage pregnancies

According to Plan International, teenage pregnancy increases when girls are denied the right to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and well-being.

The Funga Miguu people can be of better service to their community if they changed their language to reflect this reality. Girls don’t need to be told to close their legs. It’s the perpetrators of sexual violence who need to be told to zip up.

The real revolution will happen when we stop shaming pregnant teenage girls and start empowering them by providing them with the knowledge and information they need to navigate the choppy waters of life.  We can start that revolution by minding our language.

 Ms Oneya comments on social and gender topics. @FaithOneya, [email protected]

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