Research & Action Report Spring/Summer 2003

By Deborah L. Tolman

Last May, I met with an international group of women who provide reproductive-health and sexuality-education services to adolescent girls in developing countries with support from the International Women’s Health Coalition.

I had been invited to present the model of female adolescent sexual health outlined in my 1999 article, “Femininity as a barrier to positive sexual health for girls” Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, vol. 54, no. 3, pp.133–138. The model is distinguished by its emphasis on incorporating the contexts of individual girls’ personal histories, experiences, qualities and knowledge within their dating/ romantic relationships, other social relationships and the sociocultural/sociopolitical context in which such relationships develop and occur. I was very interested in the group’s reaction to this model.

Many of the members of the group felt that the model I presented reflects their own approach to improving girls’ sexual health and sexual rights (a concept that has not been well developed in the U.S.). Many also felt it offered them new directions for their programs. Their suggestions for improvement were extremely helpful, especially their emphasis on the need to explicitly identify the economic contexts in which girls are developing and that often put their sexual health and
rights at risk.

During the course of the meetings, I had the privilege of talking with Dr. Bene Madunagu and Grace Osakue, who together founded and now direct a program called the Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) in Eastern Nigeria. They spoke with me about their approach to improving girls’ sexual health and rights. GPI provides a mutual process of education and resistance to gender oppression for individual girls, their families, their communities and, ultimately, for national policies and initiatives. The organization has achieved international acclaim, and we in the U.S. have a lot to learn from the program. Of particular importance is GPI’s fundamental belief that educating girls to resist gender stereotypes and become active, outspoken, and“ interruptive” members of their communities is a critical part of what enables them to be sexually healthy.

The cornerstone of GPI is a carefully crafted curriculum that spans several years and provides a wealth of factual information about sexuality and about reproductive health and development. What contrasts sharply with U.S. efforts, is GPI’s focus on gender as crucial to enabling and empowering girls in their cultural contexts. In the following excerpts from our discussion, Madunagu and Osakue describe their philosophy and offer vivid examples of how girls in the program put their critique of gender oppression into action to support their own and other girls’ sexual health and rights.

Osakue: A major tool for the sources of GPI work is the gender perspective. I don’t believe that a program of sexuality education
not rooted in the gender perspective can have a long-lasting impact.

Madunagu: Gender is a component of every lesson. No matter what you are teaching, the societal attitudes in respect to that topic
are very, very relevant. And that is usually our starting point because we have realized that where the girls are, and who they think they are, have a lot to do with whether they are able to protect themselves from exploitation and whether they are able to aspire, have dreams, and believe that they can actually achieve those dreams. Everything has to do with the issues of how society has conceptualized girls.

There’s a social construction of who a good girl is. A good girl is expected to be invisible. She’s not expected to be different. In GPI
we try to help girls think critically, to question, and to realize that it is possible to be different and still be a good girl. We help the girls see
beyond what they are told.

For us, the issue of gender is at the bottom of everything. It is what is being used to hold the girls back. Since we think it is time the girls are no longer held back, we believe the girls should have information. They are human beings who can think, they are human beings with rights, they are human beings with responsibilities. So we approach every issue from a gender perspective.

Osakue: And I think that we make girls realize that what the society calls a girl child is actually a social construction, and not the reality.

Madunagu: The girls realize that by the time you are born, as soon as they see from your vulva that you are female, you are no longer a human being. You now become a girl child. And it’s like prison clothing.
You dress in these bright colors, thinking, “Oh, I have to dress to please someone. I have to dress to be seen,” whether it is what you
want to do or not. And that’s how the society builds up the girl as property. We have gotten a number of cases where GPI girls have
stopped “bride price” in their families.

Tolman: Could you tell me more about that?

Madunagu: For example, a girl in GPI got back home one day, and the father called her to the sitting room. He told her that a man had
come to talk about his wishes to marry her and that there was a long discussion about the bride price. Well, she finished listening—luckily for her, she was in her final year at GPI, so she was already an empowered girl!—and said,“ Dad, I know you love me. You say so, and I believe you.” He said, “Yes, so what does that have to do with this?” “It has a lot to do with it,” she said. “My own senior brother is still in school, and you are talking about marriage for me. I also want to finish school. Even
when and if I make the choice to marry, you want me to be treated like my mother,”(because her father had paid bride price for her mother).

Osakue: We had a 13-year-old girl who actually intervened to stop female genital mutilation. Her auntie wanted to do it, and the girl was
excited because they had bought all the materials. Well, this 13-year-old GPI girl went and told the auntie, “No, you can’t do that.” The auntie said, “What are you talking about? Where did you get this from?” The GPI girl had already succeeded in convincing her own mother, so she dragged her mother to the auntie’s house, until the auntie agreed not to carry out the genital mutilation. And when the GPI girl’s mother said that it was over and that they could go, her daughter reminded her of the things that had been bought. The GPI girl collected them, physically, so that they wouldn’t be tempted to use them!

Madunagu: What should be natural is sexual pleasure, as part of human sexuality, male or female. But if you are forced or coerced into sexual intercourse and you have information that you can get a sexually transmitted infection, it becomes painful—psychologically, mentally, and physically. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS that we know of yet. Even if there is a cure in the developed world, it doesn’t reach us, and we wouldn’t, I’m sure, be able to afford it. So there is danger associated with wanting sexual pleasure under circumstances of male-female power.

Tolman: This is very similar to how many people in the U.S. are dealing with these issues and talking about this problem of the difference in men’s and women’s power in terms of sexual intercourse and risk.

Madunagu: Nobody says, “Don’t have sexuality.” Of course it’s part of human development—part of human life and human sexuality. However,
as a young, developing girl, if you have casual sex without the use of a condom, even if you never have menstruated, you can become pregnant, and you’ll drop out of school. And you’ll end up in a poverty situation because you have no skills to be able to get a good career, a good job that will take care of you and your child. And then you don’t earn any respect.

However, if you, on your own, make the choice to be sexually active, then you have to protect yourself. We don’t believe you should trust the male partner to use a condom that will protect you. You have to buy the condom yourself, and we teach GPI girls what it takes to make certain the condom is OK—the length of time it has, the shelf life, the storage, and so on, and how to test to know that it’s still OK. So you have to buy it. It is a responsibility. If you know you can’t buy it, then you are not yet ready.

After this lesson, a GPI girl went to buy a condom and the person said, “No, I can’t sell a condom to you.” “Why?“ she asked. “You’re a small girl!” was the answer. “Do you know my age? Did you ask me about my age? I’m 18. Would you sell to a boy of 18?” “Of course, yes!” “Aha, so it is not a question of my age, it is a question of my gender.” The girl just wanted to practice the lesson she had been taught, but she went on to educate the man in the chemist’s shop. But that’s what it means—that you‘re not prepared for sexual acts if you cannot buy a condom.

Deborah L. Tolman, Ed.D., was a senior research scientist and director of the Gender and Sexuality Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women. An expanded version of this discussion will appear in a forthcoming issue of Feminism and Psychology, for which Dr. Tolman is serving as guest editor. For more information about the Girls’ Power Initiative, visit the International Women’s Health Coalition at

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