FOR too many girls in Nigeria sex education is really just a parent, sister or friend saying: “Don’t let any boy touch you,” and “If a man touches you, you will get pregnant.”
Similar vague warnings are repeated by parents, teachers and other authority figures all over Africa. As a result, many girls and women often get pregnant because they don’t have access to complete and accurate information about contraceptives and reproductive healthcare.
In the end, some may decide to have an abortion – like I [Blessing Timidi Digha] did. Confused, scared and without many options, numerous young girls turn to illegal back-alley clinics for unsafe abortions performed in dirty environments and with unsterile equipment.
In Nigeria, abortion is only legal in exceptional circumstances, such as in the case of saving a pregnant woman’s life. But that does not mean abortions do not take place for other reasons. Despite restrictive laws, the Guttmacher Institute estimated that, in 2012, 1.25 million abortions took place in Nigeria – the majority of them performed in unsanitary settings by unskilled people.
Girls and women deserve more; they deserve better. Now is the time to invest in their health, rights and wellbeing, and turn the tide on their futures. We know that one of the best ways to reduce unsafe abortions is to provide girls and women with access to comprehensive sex education and contraceptives. Yet, globally, more than 225 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using modern contraceptives.
If we filled these global gaps in sexual and reproductive health services, education and rights – and provided women with the full range of pregnancy care they are entitled to – we could reduce unintended pregnancy by 70% and unsafe abortions by 74%, according to the United Nations Population Fund and Guttmacher Institute.
We also know that when girls and women can choose when and whether to have children, they are more likely to reach their full potential – and so are their families and communities and the economies they are connected to. For these reasons we owe it to our mothers, sisters and daughters, as well as our families and communities, to do more and to do better.
And young people are leading the charge. Each day, young advocates are moving the needle on legislation in favour of girls and women by challenging cultural norms and misconceptions. At the Girl Child Development and Support Initiative, Nigerian youth advocates are starting difficult conversations about sexuality, abortions and access to contraceptives – and educating and empowering each other to take charge of their own sexual health.
Most importantly, this programme provides a space for youth advocates to take these conversations to the next level by finding new ways to hold policymakers accountable for their promises to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights in Nigeria.
Talking about sexual and reproductive health is perhaps the most important step in addressing these issues. While sexual health and rights awareness has increased in Nigeria overall, it is still relatively low among adolescents. For example, in a global study conducted by the World Bank less than 2% of boys and 6.6% of girls aged 15-19 were able to correctly identify when a woman was most likely to get pregnant during her ovarian cycle.
To build on these conversations, the Girl Child Development and Support Initiative is also launching a new campaign – #SRHRStereotypes – that will run online and offline to give young people an even larger platform on which to speak openly about sexual health and take action, both locally and globally.
This campaign will be important because it has the potential to dispel common sexual health and family planning myths that have been passed on from generation to generation – many of which cause more harm than good.
The campaign provides a unique opportunity to clarify misconceptions and debunk stigma associated with sexual and reproductive health and rights. #SRHRStereotypes will fill the sex-education gap for young people by delivering accurate, life-saving and easy to understand information on sensitive topics through social media, radio and television broadcasts.
These solutions and many more will be explored at the Women Deliver 2016 conference taking place in Copenhagen in May. Crucially, a good 20% of attendees will be young people – and for a valid reason: young people aren’t just our tomorrow, they are the leaders of today and must be given opportunities to drive change in their communities.
We need to recognise the powerful solutions every young person and every generation has to offer. Let’s work smarter for girls and women everywhere.
- Katja Iversen is chief executive of Women Deliver and Blessing Timidi Digha is a Women Deliver young leader and the community mobilisation and advocacy officer at the Girl Child Development and Support Initiative.