Why is Sexual Health Such a Taboo Topic in Africa?

Sexual health all over the world is a sensitive topic, but in Africa, it remains a topic that often goes unspoken about, and if anything is said, it can be met with harsh criticism and, at times, ignorance.


The topic of “sex” has a profound effect on many a conversation. In some cases, the term makes people uncomfortable, making some incapable of maintaining eye contact or triggering a swift change in subject. For others, it is a catalyst for a more intense, exciting and heated discussion. For many people today, it seems that sex has simply become a mundane topic, part of everyday life. Nevertheless, in our contemporary society, it appears that regardless of age, gender or ethnicity, everyone is talking about sex.

In the West, this has brought with it important conversations about sexual health starting at schools, and information being provided by local health services and being made available for all. The accessible provision of information, guidance, and resources in regards to sexual health has meant that many people are starting to feel less uncomfortable asking questions that are integral to their health, with the answers helping to prevent problems such as sexually transmitted infections and diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and even bad hygiene. In Africa however, the topic of sexual health remains a taboo, a trend that extends to second and third generation diasporans.

A common misconception of the term sexual health that seems to be prevalent not only in African communities, but also in the West, and in Asian communities, is the idea that sexual health is all about sex.

In Christianity and Islam, two of the most practiced religions in Africa, premarital sex is forbidden and generally frowned upon. For this reason, the more traditional members of African communities largely discourage conversations about sex, and sexual health by default, as it assumed that by talking about these things, they would be encouraging young people to engage in premarital sex.

In addition to this, some parents do not themselves have extensive knowledge of sexual health and so they are limited in their ability to educate their children about sexual health.

Sexual health, however, encompasses several issues apart from the act of sex itself. Schoolrun.com explains that sex education in schools, for example, covers issues such as human anatomy and hygiene, reproduction, safe sex, and even sexual abstinence. It has been argued that these topics are not just essential for young people who are yet to reach the age of consent but also for adults who are already married.

Speaking on one of their recent projects, the West Africa Adolescent & Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health Program, Pathfinder International described West African countries Niger, Burkina Faso, and Guinea as “a region with some of the lowest contraceptive prevalence and highest maternal mortality in Africa”. In order to combat this, the charity “made sure first-time parents have access to contraception so they can decide whether and when to have children and…trained healthcare providers to deliver young first-time parents high-quality services for contraception”.

Despite the fact that they may not be explicitly talking about sex with their parents, many young people in Africa and across the diaspora are still engaging in sexual activity without having the correct information about sexual health or using the right resources. According to a research study on the sexual behaviour of adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa, this has resulted in many young people between the ages of 15 and 19 being at risk of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS and also unplanned pregnancies due to insufficient condom and contraceptive use, as well as a lack of information about the possible dangers of having multiple sexual partners.

The stigma attached to the HIV/AIDS epidemic means that many people often feel ashamed to openly discuss or ask questions about it or go for testing to ensure that they are not carriers of the disease. Research like this is important in drawing attention to the fact that talking about sexual health needs to become the norm.

Charities such as Pathfinder International have been successful in doing this. A more creative and innovative approach to discussing sexual health in Africa is seen in the popular online show MTV Shuga. The show which is set in Kenya, South Africa, and most recently Nigeria, explores taboo topics such as HIV testing, contraceptives in marriage and safe sex encouraging its watchers to take more concern regarding their sexual health.