In September 1983, in Mexico City, 17 year old Hortensia Aguilar gave birth to twins in secret and alone. Having hidden the pregnancy from her catholic family -who never educated her about sex-, with no support from a fly-by-night boyfriend and living in extreme poverty, she buried the newborns alive in the same field where she had agonized in labour during the night. The crime was discovered. ‘Baby murderer’ screamed the headlines the following day, showing pictures of a crying brown girl being led away to prison in handcuffs. Knowing Mexico’s prison system, that, like many prisons, punishes desperately poor and powerless people far more than it punishes real criminals, she may still be there.
At the time I thought that traditions that forbid girls to have sex, but not help them to avoid pregnancies, would maybe persist for another few years, but would then finally give way to a more humane environment for girls.
I was wrong.
In October 2010, twentyseven years later -the same period spent in jail by Nelson Mandela for having defended human rights- Evelyn Lesabane, 18, ate rat poison and died after having been humiliated at school for being in possession of a condom.
Never mind all the safe sex campaigns and the aids awareness workshops and the fact that the school, in Alexandra township, probably officially espouses all the right NGO-type messages, girls are still not supposed to have sex.
This is what girls know: if you have sex, you die. You die either in septic childbirth, through unsafe abortion, or you die in jail because you tried to cover up your shame and despair through infanticide or child abandonment. You die because your mother/father/reverend/local nurse will shout and shame and embarrass you so much that you will kill yourself.
My 16 year old daughter and her class were told, by a white female teacher in Pretoria, that an abortion ‘often’ results in shock and death. In the lesson and study sheet, no difference was made between unsafe septic and hospital abortions. The next message on the study sheet was that a girl, if she survived the abortion, was surely to commit suicide after realising what she had done.
If only it was easy to not have sex. If only girls had no hormones, boyfriends, pressures to deal with, if only they felt no misery, loneliness and need for hugs, if only they were made of titanium. I suppose then one could avoid sex altogether. (But, actually, we all know that you can’t.)
So you try to prevent pregnancy. Then you get embarrassed by a teacher or a clinic sister or your own family, or your boyfriend. Evelyn Lesabane was so humiliated by the office lady at school who shook her, shouted at her, took her to the principal and had her suspended, that she ate rat poison. My daughters’ class was shown a movie showing the most frightful pictures of venereal diseases and scenes of ruined lives. The cause of all that misery? Sex. Not one mention of safe sex, or how to avoid STD’s. The only acceptable way of life is total abstinence.
Dozens of teenagers tell stories -only to those who want to listen- that they tried to obtain and carry condoms, only to be lectured and punished. So after that, they didn’t. And got pregnant. And ended up dead or in jail. In 2010, dead babies are discovered daily on rubbish heaps, in long drop toilets and along the road. Hortensia Aguilar a million times over.
I still see George W. Bush grinning when he made that speech about abstinence on TV. ‘It’s a sure thing, it works every time’, he said.