The Sande Society, Sororities and Sex Education: Why PSHE is Important

Whether girl or woman, boy or man, you need to 'belong'. You need to feel important to others and connected with them. What you don't need is to be controlled or used by anyone else. Support is very different from social suffocation; sharing is very different from being taken for a dangerous ride.

As a teenager in the 1960s I was thrilled to gain a scholarship to attend American High School for my Senior (final school-age) year. The transition from Birmingham UK to Arizona USA was stark, but everyone did their very best to make me welcome; and thus it was, hardly had I arrived, that I became a member of the most prestigious of my school's sororities.

Initially unsure what a 'sorority' actually was, it took me a while to understand the significance of the invitation to join one. But once I'd grasped the essentials I realised that my luck was really in: the generous and lively girls in that sisterhood treated me as one of their own, and never in that year was I lost for friendship and support.

Happily, my sororal initiation involved nothing more than the presentation of a badge and consumption (as I recall) of nice cake. Later however I learned that some other communities of 'sisters' and 'brothers' conducted ceremonies of a much less pleasant nature - recalling tales recounted of the grim initiations experienced, especially by boys, when first attending private boarding schools in the UK. Heads pushed into unsavoury bathroom fittings are in some accounts just for starters.

The need to belong

Later on, reflecting, I gleaned from all this that many, many people are members of special or even secret societies and that 'belonging', despite the costs, is often a critical element in shaping who we think we are, and how we see the world.

This true for men and women, for boys and girls. Sometimes the organisations we align with are positive and constructive - like my sorority all those years ago - and sometimes, whilst they may seem attractive, perhaps even really desirable, their influence and power over members is pernicious.

Personal costs

Such unperceived perniciousness applies for instance to ancient organisations such as the Sande Society in parts of Africa such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where secret initiations into womanhood leave girls with new names and a passport to marriage, but also (provided they survive the 'surgery') with life-long damage deriving from female genital mutilation (FGM). Here are bonded centuries-old traditions and beliefs, the outcomes of which in profoundly unspoken alliance shackle men - who have their own secret society, the Poro - and women alike. With the knife will come marriage but also for the wife persistent pain, ill-health and future obstetric hazard. Without this rite of passage adult women will be unable to serve, abandoned and outcaste.

Horrifically, shadows of the Sande Society and similar ancient traditions can still be found in the UK today: FGM remains a dire hazard for around 24,000 girls in some British communities annually, right here and now.

Likewise, the stark reality of contemporary pernicious 'belonging' is illustrated all too tragically, in cities such as London, by highly localised and tight-knit gangs of young teenagers, children who may have begun as victims, but end up (sometimes fatally, also dying by the knife) as fully functioning and literally paid-up members of the group. In their hostile, anomic environment these children - increasingly girls as well as boys - make the judgement that it's better in than out, whatever the perils of that choice.

Nor do the modern challenges of converging personal cohesion and autonomy go away when we are adult. Some in western society choose to become members of secretive organisations, some do not. Either way, our responsibilities for ourselves and to our communities remain.

Where does this take us?

In the context of the massive movement which is One Billion Rising (14 February 2013), and the related call for every child in Britain to receive Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), I think these observations take us here:

Whether girl or woman, boy or man, you need to 'belong'. You need to feel important to others and connected with them. What you don't need is to be controlled or used by anyone else. Support is very different from social suffocation; sharing is very different from being taken for a dangerous ride.

Learning how to choose

We all - 'victims' and 'perpetrators' - need to learn about appropriate boundaries, about negotiating to the best levels of distance or proximity, about how to be a part of, not a controlled, involuntary mechanism in, our social groupings and wider society. To do this we must learn to think about where we are, what we are doing, and how to be sure our choices are in our best longer-term interests.

School is, for almost everyone, the place where it's easiest and most natural to be involved in this quest for a personal balance between a spirit of belonging and an independence of mind. Well-trained, responsible, caring teachers are the people who can help us best as we mature to make the transition from gut reactions, fear, isolation and childish uncertainty to judgements which will serve us well for the future.

Making sense of our futures

It matters not where or who we are. In the concrete jungle, in the constrained communities of the diaspora, in the playground, even later on in the workplace, we need to learn how to stand back for the moment it takes to judge what's best all round for ourselves and others. And the basis for all these judgements is age-appropriate, sound knowledge, a level of empathy, and personal skills to negotiate to the right place.

We live in a complex, ever-modulating and inter-connected world. The hazards of such a context can be terrifying: the grooming of children of both sexes, pregnancy or even illicit marriage for young girls, FGM, adult domestic violence, workplace harassment... the list goes on and grotesquely on.

Whether potential victim or potential perpetrator, the more assured grasp of our present choices, the more likely it is that future harm to ourselves and others will be avoided and that sound decisions will be made.

Positive self-determination

Personal, Social and Health Education, and as a part of that Sex and Relationship Education, is an entitlement for every child. That message, as I explain here, has been live in the UK for several decades now.

We should not be 'asking' our Government to deliver a full PSHE curriculum to our children. They should be insisting, without exception, that every child receives it.

Hilary Burrage is a sociologist currently researching FGM; she has written widely on PSHE.


Please consider signing the HM Government e-petition to Stop FGM in Britain, and offering your support to the National Children's Bureau (which has led the call for better SRE).

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