Bangladeshi women as front runners in sex education

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'We should not be so ashamed to talk about sex. It's the origin of the world. If women would not give birth, the world would stop,' says 25-year-old Rabeya Sarkar Rima.  But the fact is that where Rabeya comes from, sex is a taboo subject, but one she and a group of women are hoping to break.

By Nies Medema

Rabeya is part of a discussion group of young women talking about issues surrounding growing up in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The group is the brainchild of anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed.

'We discuss many things: work, parents, our bodies and yes, sex too. In this country, if sex is discussed at all, it's often in a very middle class patronizing manner. I think this is because people fear the energy of adolescents,' says Rahnuma Ahmed, a former university professor, who wants to collect the testimonies of young women about growing up in Dhaka.

Ms Ahmed invites eight young women from different social backgrounds to her house. They come after class and occasionally become so engaged in talking together that it gets too late to go home, so they stay the night.

Rabeya Sarkar Rima and her friend and colleague Shopna Akthe, also 25, remember those nights well. 'We had a lot of fun, we talked about things every one should know, but is ashamed to discuss with their parents.’

Giving birth
Shopna herself would really have liked to know more about birth control when she was a teenager. She was 14 when her parents married her to a man 13 years older than herself. 'He was good to me. For the first three months I didn't want to have sex but he didn't force me.'

And when they finally did, Shopna got pregnant straight away. 'I was only 15, I had no idea why I was vomiting. My mother took me to a doctor, who then told us I was already three months on the way. I started crying. I was still in school, I didn't want to give birth!'

Her son was born two months early. 'My husband and mother were both out of town, I had to have a caesarean. It was horrible!' From then on Shopna advises all her young friends and relatives to use birth control.

Rabeya got married a few months ago. ‘I don’t want to have children, so I’ve told my husband to take precautions. It’s only a little trouble for him, and a lot of work for me. I don’t want to use any birth control pills or IUD. It could be painful or bad for my health. I don’t want that.’ Would she have dared to be so outspoken if it weren’t for the fact she has been discussing these matters openly with other women?

Probably not. ‘I was in a sex education project at the TV station I worked for, long ago. A doctor came and told us about menstruation, venereal diseases and er...  masturbation. We were in a mixed group, girls and boys together. We were all so shy we didn’t dare to look at each other.’

Rahnuma Ahmed has asked the young women of her group to co-write the book. ‘Sometimes we spent a long time discussing a single word. The common word for pubic hair is also a swear word, so would we use that word or the more official term? The girls decided to use the common word. We need a language which is not clinical, a language which sounds familiar and friendly.’

The book has yet to be published. Rabeya would like it to be a book which families could use to discuss. And she insists that it has to be moderately priced, so many families could afford a copy, and talk about the mysteries of life together.

The project was funded by Research Initiatives Bangladesh (RIB), a non-governmental, non-profit research-support agency, which is partly supported by the Government of the Netherlands.