The purpose of this article was to examine parents and adolescents’ perceptions about sexual timing and sexual talks as possible psychosocial factors that could influence the reported epidemiological differentials in HIV prevalence between Somanya and Adidome. In principle, adolescents and parents’ view of best timing for sexual behaviour for adolescents is socio-culturally constructed.
This theoretical perception of timing does not translate into practical behaviours in adolescents. Adolescents thus disagreed with their parents about onset of sexual behaviour. This tension seems crystalized in the way parents perceived adolescents-as tainted generation and how adolescents also perceived parents as ignorant about the biochemistry in adolescence. In several communities in Ghana, many parents frown upon sexual activity of their children outside the context of marriage; especially so when these children live under the roof of their parents. The wish of parents is for their adolescent children to be biologically mature, complete their education, gain employment after which one can think about getting married which is an official license to engage in sexual activities. This is usually cherished and regarded as an honour to the parents, the children themselves and the entire family. Anything short of that is deemed disappointing and in some instances a disgrace to the family especially when pregnancy occurs.
To this end, the expectation is for parents to provide supportive environments in which their adolescent children can have access to useful information taking into account an understanding of the development of their sexuality so that they do not engage in an untimely risky sexual behaviours. Children are first nurtured at home when it comes to adolescent sexuality
. Parents thus become the primary and significant influences on their children and have tremendous impacts on their attitudes and behaviours
The issue of hormonal changes impacting on the sexual drive of adolescents cannot be wished away because those are natural dynamics that occur in every adolescent’s development. This fact was emphasized by adolescents in the two communities. The control mechanisms put in place however go a long way to minimize the extent and the time to which these adolescents engage in sexual activities. For example, in Somanya, it was observed that parents resorted to their individual personal effort in preventing their adolescent children from engaging in sexual activities whilst in Adidome, parents in addition to their personal efforts also engaged the services of other people and institutions to help control their adolescents’ sexual behaviours. This is consistent with our earlier findings where parents in Adidome relied on communal socialization to regulate sexual behaviours of their children
. The expectation therefore is for adolescents in Adidome to be better controlled than their counterparts in Somanya.
Talking about sexuality in many African cultures is perceived as a taboo, allowing only ceremonial rites or authorised persons to discuss the subject with young people
. In many countries however, these traditional ways of communicating sexual matters between generations have broken down due to lifestyle changes
. Traditionally, female adolescents were educated by aunts on sexual behaviours when they go into marriage, but aunts are no longer playing that role
. Unfortunately, these personalities including many parents have unintentionally reneged on this responsibility.
This can in part be attributed to the sensitivity surrounding sexual talk that makes parents uncomfortable when they have to discuss sexuality with their children. In instances where parents have discussed sexuality issues with their children, these discussions have often been incomplete
. Messages that are transmitted by parents therefore tend to be ambiguous and vague. This perhaps may be in consonance with the sexual mores in Ghana where reference to sexuality-related issues are done using euphemisms. In many cases, children neither understand these terminologies nor are they able to ask their parents for detailed explanations or seek clarifications on such issues. This is to avoid a situation where parents may confirm their perception of the children as spoilt.
Nevertheless, communication is said to be a two way process but in many Ghanaian communities, communication on sexual issues is usually done by parents who directly talk to their adolescent children, resorting to didactic and authoritative approaches
. In this instance all the adolescent children do is to listen and not to ask questions or talk back. The notion is held that a child who talks back to his/her parents is disobedient and so for most children, hardly would they want to play their role of being active partners in an effective communication process. What then happens is a unidirectional type of communication where it is only the parents who give the information
It is therefore not surprising that, many adolescents receive most of their information on sexuality from their peers, which often leads to misinformation. Adolescent children who tend to be involved with friends end up in social contexts that encourage early dating and entry into romantic relationships
. Consequently, sexual initiation takes place earlier than anticipated
In conclusion, sexual communication between adolescents and their parents in these two communities was a challenge. However there were differentials in the way this challenge was dealt with by parents in these communities. Whilst those in Somanya were antagonistic and held a negative view of their adolescents’ sexual behaviours, those from Adidome were more open minded and involved all relevant stakeholders in handling this challenge. Adolescents’ view of best time for sex and its communication could thus be largely situated within the biological discourse compared to the socioeconomic paradigm of parents. This could fuel the seeming tension between parents and adolescents and thereby hamper smooth sexual communication.
Implications for HIV education in Ghana
The findings of the present study have important implications for HIV education programmes in Ghana: First, messages from parents must be clear and concise, devoid of warnings about the negative outcomes of pre-marital sex. Parents should thus discuss the broader issues on sexuality, to include adolescents’ sexuality and their reproductive health needs. Failure to provide adolescents with accurate information on these specific topics may place the adolescents at risk for negative outcomes, particularly if they seek such information from peers. In addition, parents need to adopt an open and receptive approach when initiating conversations, encouraging questions from adolescents and responding to these questions. An open process of sexuality communication involves both parents having adequate knowledge, being willing to listen, talking openly and freely, and understanding the feelings behind any questions posed by adolescents. This is to avoid the unidirectional process where only parents do the talking.
It is also important that institutions such as the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana (PPAG) that is known to be involved and conversant with adolescent reproductive health issues be encouraged to announce their presence in communities where they can be of immense help to adolescent who otherwise would have difficulties engaging in sex talk with their parents. By so doing, they would get the requisite information that will help them take control of their sexual life especially. Adolescents cannot be denied that right which was emphasized at the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994 and New York, 1998) as well as the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), both coordinated by the UN, that affirmed the sexual and reproductive rights of young people.
Limitation of study
This study has some limitations. The first is that it is case-driven and thus the findings cannot be generalized to every community in Ghana. Another is that the use of focus group discussion could discourage some parents from sharing other sensitive issues about their wards. Against the backdrop that within the interdependent social milieu in Ghana, a member’s misconduct could affect others, some parents are likely to hold back other information that might be sensitive, although useful and richer for analysis.