‘Purity culture’ is wounding women and sexual assault victims across Africa

“Voices against Violence” curriculum training in Zambia. (Photo: UN Women)

There is nothing as damaging as the teachings of purity culture. I would know this as a woman living in Nigeria where our traditions and two main practiced religions are ardent enforcers of the patriarchal principle.

While it is common knowledge that both Christianity and Islam preach purity and chastity before marriage for both genders, society points these teachings solely towards women and girls.

Purity culture teaches a girl from childhood to keep her virginity until marriage because it is a “gift” for her husbands. Women are constantly taught that their worth lies in their sexuality and in their vagina. Society teaches girls that, if for any reason, a woman’s virginity is “taken” by someone other than her husband, then she has lost her worth.

Purity culture teaches modesty within the context of the male gaze. A woman is told to dress modestly so that she doesn’t lead a man to sin. Society tells us that men have uncontrollable sexual urges, and in order to avoid leading men to sin, women and girls should cover up. These problematic teachings are preached around the world, and are taught to this day across Africa.

It was Michael Olasope who said: “Modesty must not be taught in the context of the male gaze. If a man is perverse, he could see a woman eating a banana or an ice lolly and be aroused. For that reason, should women no longer eat in front of men? This is not only wrong; it is dangerous”

The belief that modesty prevents sexual assault is flawed, because women – regardless of what they are wearing – are still sexually assaulted. For example, Muslim women who in their hijabs and niqabs are still hyper-sexualized and also sexually assaulted.

Purity culture also permits victim blaming by making the woman or girl responsible for the man’s lewd and predatory sexual advances. Asking questions such as: “What was she wearing?” and making statements like “she asked for it” insinuate that the girl or woman did something to warrant sexual harassment. Purity culture takes the accountability from the sexual harasser and puts it on the victims. Purity culture permits victims of sexual assault to be referred to as “damaged goods.” This is dangerous on so many levels.

In June of 2019, Busola Dakolo shared her story of how Pastor Biodun Fatonyibo of COZA church visited her in her home at night and sexually assaulted her. Busola, married to popular musician Timi Dakolo, in accused Pastor Fatoyinbo of raping her twice before she turned 18.

While her statements triggered what some called Nigeria’s #MeToo Movement, many people on social media discredited her statement by questioning what she was wearing during their encounter. They seemed to have forgotten that she was in her own home and that she has the right to wear whatever she wants.

Victims of sexual assault having been indoctrinated from childhood that their worth lies in their virginity and their sexuality. This shaming is precisely why many victims are scared to speak up and seek justice. When victims know that if they speak up they will be blamed and their stories disregarded, they see speaking up as a futile attempt. This bottling up of truths and emotions therefore causes unnecessary emotional pain for the victims.

In a country such as Nigeria, where sexual assault cases are in the millions, there must be healthier discussions about sex. Instead, there is a lot of shame linked to discussions surrounding sexual assault, and sex in general. We as a society need to purge our minds of this stigma, as this will be a very important step towards ending purity culture. Children need to be taught from a very young age that their body is autonomous. They must also learn the importance of sexual consent.

Girls must be taught about their right to bodily integrity, instead of being taught their bodies are simply instruments that can lead men to sin. Women and girls must not be held accountable for sexual violations committed by lustful men.

Men who commit acts of sexual assault and rape must be held accountable for their actions. By doing this, society shows victims that they matter, that they are being heard; and this in in turn will encourage more victims to speak up and seek justice.

Davida Egbung

The Author

Davida Egbung is a Nigerian-based feminist blogger, content creator, and hopeless romantic. Davida is a passionate youth activist who advocates for gender equality in Nigeria. She is also a recent college graduate with a Bachelor's Degree in International Relations and Diplomacy.