Nigeria: Who Is Minding The Sexual Health Of Our Youth?

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Published: December 8, 2015


This is an excerpt of a special feature on the sexual health of Nigerian youths published in Radiant Magazine Issue No.07

Fadekemi Akinfaderin-Agarau is the co-founder and executive director of Education as a Vaccine (EVA), an NGO that promotes improved sexual health education among Nigerian youth. The organisation believes that with the right policies, with sexually empowered young people, and with better health systems to cater to the sexual health of young people, we will have a better Nigeria.

RH: We hardly talk about sex in Nigeria; yet young girls get pregnant. Many feel that when they talk about sexual health, it will expose young people to danger. What do you think about silence and sexual health among young people?

FAA: What we see in our society is ambivalence when it comes to sexual health and young people. People do not want to talk about sex, yet young people are sexual beings who are having sex, and they need information to make the right decisions. Young people have sex for various reasons, not just because they feel like having sex. Some have sex to negotiate. Some have sex because they need to pay school fees. Some have sex as a result of peer pressure. Hence, it is important to talk about it.

Without the right information, they will make decisions with whatever information they get from friends and people around them. That is why we advocate comprehensive sex education. Even though sex education has been incorporated into the academic curriculum, you realize that it is not being taught by most teachers. When they get to that bit, they skip it.

In March 1999, the Family Life and HIV Curriculum was incorporated into the school curriculum at the 46th session of the National Council on Education. This council comprises the commissioners of education from all the states in the Federation, and they are the highest decision-making body when it comes to such matters. They approved that sexual education should be a part of the curriculum, but it is still not being taught.

Many believe that when they talk to young people about their sexual health, that they would “corrupt” them. Many assume that talking about sexual health would give young people the go-ahead to experiment, but it is not true. It was Bishop Desmond Tutu who made a brilliant allusion that captures the situation. Your son is being beaten by the rain; sexual education is the umbrella to protect him from the rain.

So, whether we talk about it or not, they will get the information from somewhere else. The question is: what kind of information are they getting? Is it information that will help them make better decisions as human beings? Is it one that will make them make better decisions that will give us a better Nigeria?

RH: What does society’s silence expose our youth to?

FAA: It means that they make decisions based on whatever information that they find around them, right or wrong. Nigeria is known around the world when it comes to negative health issues. And this is because most of the health issues in Nigeria affect young people. Young people comprise a large part of the population. So, most health issues are also youth health issues.

It means that Nigeria has second highest HIV rate in the world, and half of those infected are young people, and half of those young people are women. It means that Nigeria has the second highest rate of maternal deaths in the world, and a huge part of that rate is from unsafe abortions, which is largely from young girls. It means that young boys have their first sexual experience with commercial sex workers who they pay, and who many times they contract sexually transmitted infections from – this they spread to their other sexual partners. Yet the disease keeps spreading because they are not supposed to talk about sexual health.

Nigeria is like this because we restrict young people from access to information. When they do not have the information, they are not empowered. However, when we begin to see everything from this perspective, everyone – parents and the government – begin to see youth health as an issue and create policies to meet the needs. This means that we will be talking about sexual education.

RH: For young women, it seems to be a catch-22. They cannot have sex and they cannot talk about it, yet they cannot protect themselves because the only way society sees a woman is as chaste. Do you think that there are different expectations for both sexes when it comes to sexual health?

FAA: Yes, there are different expectations for boys and girls. Boys are expected to be sexually active, yet we do not tell them how to go about it. It is okay for boys to have sex. Girls are not expected to be having sex at all, but we should ask: If the society expects the boys to be having sex, and they expect the girls not to have sex, who will the boys be having sex with? We should be asking ourselves: How do the girls get pregnant?

This means that when girls get pregnant, everything is shrouded. Many of them seek quacks for unsafe abortions, which usually leads to death, while some others just drop out of school. I go to many schools and I notice that there are more boys in school than girls. The girls drop out of school when they get pregnant. In some countries, when the girls are pregnant they are put on a second chance programme whereby they can come back to school immediately after giving birth.

Pregnancy should not be the end of education. It is only Niger state that has that kind of programme whereby the girls can return to school immediately after giving birth. But pregnancy does not even mean that education should stop at all; she can continue even with her pregnancy, take a break to deliver, and then return to school. Many fear that such a programme will encourage other girls to get pregnant, but it will not – it will only show them that with pregnancy comes more responsibilities.

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RH: So, what does EVA do to break this silence? How do you encourage sexual health education?

FAA: EVA works in three major ways. We have projects aimed at educating young people themselves. These are capacity-building projects to empower them about their sexual health. Once they are empowered about their sexual health, they are also able to empower other young people around them – telling them about sexual health, informing them about where they can get access to contraceptives in their communities. They do this with simple flip charts loaded with information that they can share with other young people around them.

We have a “My Question” service, an SMS service whereby young people can ask any questions about their sexual health by just sending the number 38120 to the phone number: 08027192781. Within 24 hours, they will get a response to their questions.

The second strand of our work is that we build the capacity of health care workers at the primary health care levels to be able to meet the sexual health needs of young people. We also build the capacity of teachers so that they can teach sexuality education.

The last strand is focused on government policies. Policies are a backbone of change in the society. If you want to change the society, change the policy. So we work with young people; we build their capacity to know the government policies that government is working on and help them to contribute to them. One policy that we contributed to is the Anti-Stigma Bill, which we pushed for with other organisations and has now been passed into law. Now, no HIV test is required as a criterion before admission into any higher institution in Nigeria.

RH: What do you think about re-educating parents? In my parents’ time, there were no condoms, there was no Postinol. Do you think that parents need to have the skills to speak to their children on sexual health issues?

FAA: We cannot undermine the role of parents in educating their children. Most of it still lies with the parents primarily. And it is important for them to have the right skills to educate their children about sexual health. It is important at every stage of life that the parents equip the children with age-appropriate information which will help them be well-adjusted adults. We should not place the burden solely on teachers and NGOs, because the role of parents is fundamental and runs throughout the child’s life.

My three-year-old child knows what her vagina is and knows that it is a private part that should not be touched by anyone. She asked me recently: Where do babies come from? And I told her that the baby comes out of the vagina, not the navel as she had earlier thought. A friend thought that maybe I was overloading her with information, but I don’t think so. It is important for parents to keep up with the sexual information needs of their children at every point in time.

Lastly, some also put the burden solely on the shoulders of the mother. But both the father and the mother should talk to their children about sexual health.

This is an excerpt from a special feature exploring the sexual health of Nigerian youths. Read the full feature here.

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About Temitayo Olofinlua

Temitayo Olofinlua works in Ibadan, Nigeria as a freelance writer and editor. She is also the Creative Director of Wordsmithy Media.
The award-winning essayist has been published in several outlets.

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