When I cast my mind back to some four decades ago when I first entered secondary school, I remember there were strict rules to help us stay in line as future leaders and homemakers-in-training. Hair plaiting which makes young girls look like instant, adults, was a no-go area for us. As for nail polishing and facial make-up, nobody attempted to practise them.
Though the practice is still upheld by some junior and senior high schools, there are still some whose rules have been relaxed. Parents, of course, have taken advantage and even go to the extent of using extensions in plaiting their children's hair. Some also use chemicals to get them straightened. Weekends at the hair salons sometimes look like a doctor's consulting room with people waiting in queues to be attended to.
The schools that instil discipline have good reasons to do so. When you think through it all, it must be for the simple reason of helping to curb the attempt to make children adults and all its attendant problems. Children should stay and look their natural ages while focusing on their education and training for the future.
The problem today is that physically, children are developing at such fast pace. Sometimes, it is extremely difficult to tell a child in their early teens from an adult. As early as 10 years, some girls have already menstruated and started wearing their first brassieres.
And so, as the fast pace of development catches up on them, these children are tempted by all the fashions and sexism around them.
Certainly, the media is leading the way in making children think that adulthood is the thing to aspire for with the kind of advertising, jingles and promotions they portray. Adult clothes, styles, shoes, make-up and hairdo have all been replicated in children's fashion, even though they may not necessarily be appropriate for children. That is one dangerous aspect of advertising, it can be immoral at times.
Too many children are being used by advertisers to portray sexual imagery. Whether it is an energy drink that is being sold, aphrodisiacs, music videos, a pair of glasses, new line of clothing, skin lotions, soaps or eateries, these adverts are made to look good and crafted around young people very revealing and sexually appealing ways.
Perhaps, the adult society has not frowned on all the indecent exposures being brought to the doorsteps of our children. Their world is a dangerous one. Indeed, it is not the type for the faint-hearted. The peer pressure, the ready access to the Internet where unsolicited information and videos pollute their minds on a daily basis, ready access to drugs and open promiscuity are all pollutants in their world.
They get exposed too early to all these dangers and because they see them out there in the public domain, they embrace them, thinking they are acceptable.
We seem to have forgotten that children are emotionally weak. They will succumb to all sorts of pressures and “attractions” without thinking much about the implications. That may be the reason why some of them fall to peer pressure, many become victims of teenage pregnancy, and yet many more fall prey to wicked adults who take advantage of that weakness and sexually abuse them.
It is not surprising, therefore, that today in the United Kingdom (UK) everything is being done to stem the practice of making children adults. The UK seeks to cleanse its society and protect its children, its future.
The British are disquiet about the marketing of suggestive clothes and sexual slogans targeted at young children, for example. This eventually came to the doorstep of the government and brisk action was taken with the commissioning of a research into this trend. The outcome of the research is to be made public this week.
It is believed that the tough new rules coming out of the research will seek to tell High Street shops not to sell sexy clothes and underwear such as padded bras and sexually suggestive clothes to children.
To show that the UK government is serious about dealing with the issue, the rules will demand that retailers sign a voluntary code of practice that stipulates what to sell to children. The British Retail Consortium has set itself some guidelines, some of which state that slogans and imagery, including licensed images and brands must be age-appropriate and without undesirable associations or connotations.
There is definitely a crackdown on products that seek to treat young girls as adult women. Manufacturers are being asked to design modest vests and crop tops. The review calls for a ban on displaying children's swimwear next to “sexy” adult clothing in shop windows.
It says that children under 16, including celebrities and sports stars should be banned from acting as “brand-ambassadors” to sell products to youngsters and causing them to pester their parents for the products.
The proactive move by the UK government to protect British children from exploitation by advertisers and retailers is a step in the right direction and a show of commitment to the welfare of young girls, their future home builders and a great influence on society.
Back home, we have made enough noise about the education of the “girl-child”. What we have not done enough of is how that child should be protected from the harsh exploitation of the society we live in. Much as the parental role is important in the shaping up of children, an appropriate overall conducive environment within which the child lives is equally important. The framers of policies should set the broad guidelines for society to fit in. Not until then, any talk about getting it right for our children may fall on deaf ears as is happening now.
The schools are doing their bit and so are the churches which are advising parents to ensure their children come in to church in appropriate clothing. If we seriously want to stem the trend of making children adults, then, what we probably need is an “enabling” environment where the rules and framework for operating within the sector are clearly set so that those who fall foul of them can be dealt with appropriately.
It is perhaps time for the government to take pragmatic steps to look into the problem and focus on tackling some of these commercialisation issues that are trapping our young children to live and behave like adults and in the process, get wrongly targeted and sexually traumatised.
The Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs has a job here. There are some adverts by children that should not be appearing on television, for example. Internet cafe operators should not be allowed to entertain children below a certain age in their cafes. The commercial beaches could be asked to turn children who are unaccompanied by adults away from their beaches. Drinking bars and shops should not sell alcoholic drinks to children and cinemas should not allow unaccompanied children access to their premises. The list of “don'ts” can go on and on.
We need bold and pragmatic steps that would make our children, particularly the girls, safe from exploitation and sexualisation. They are our future.