By Habiba Ghazali
Growing up as a young girl in Nigeria, conversations around sexual reproductive health and rights are not often had with parents or caregivers. There is the expectation of chastity and a lack of acknowledgement of youth sexuality or freedom to have any sexual relationships whatsoever. Girls my age who were already sexually active talked in whispers and hushed tones about their experiences which also included efforts to prevent pregnancy. I got to hear about the use of lime, soda and other unusual methods but there was very little talk about preventing HIV or STIs, this was not as much a priority. Similar to my experience, many girls in Nigeria today receive sexuality education under such circumstances where there is an abundance of myths and very little guidance by the adults in their lives.
My passion to work in this space started when I worked with a team of public health experts in a national survey and had the opportunity to travel to the very remote part of Nigeria and in most of the communities I visited, I came across adolescents who had gotten pregnant, I had the opportunity to ask one of the girls how she became pregnant and she mentioned to me that in the school she attended, the school anthem only talks about abstinence and they must sing it every day during the school assembly just to reinforce that you must be a virgin, she said if she knew of methods to prevent pregnancy she would have not been in this state, it left me thinking that my friends back then in school were just lucky to not have been pregnant. Access to information on sexual reproductive health, especially contraceptives, is one major barrier adolescent girls and young women in my country face.
Participating in the International Conference on Family Planning in 2022 was a very exciting opportunity for me to present Education as a Vaccine’s project “Access to contraceptives for adolescent girls and young women”. Through which, I worked in the north central part of Nigeria, working on this project availed me the opportunity to advocate for access and also ensure that the young girls I worked with are provided the information and service they need.
It gave me the needed exposure because it was my first time out of Nigeria, I was able to network, make new friends and I met different people who are doing amazing work in this space with one purpose and goal: advancing family planning (FP). I had an opportunity to learn and get acquainted with the different issues affecting young people in the different countries and some were cross cutting, such as religious and cultural beliefs that hinder young people from accessing FP information and services.
The theme of the conference “Family Planning and Universal Health Coverage: Innovate, Collaborate, Accelerate” also resonated with me because we cannot achieve universal health coverage without these three key words. Advocating for youth participation with other stakeholders during the youth pre-conference was one of my priorities too. To ensure that young people are seen as partners/stakeholders and not project/program beneficiaries is key. Youth participation is critical in all aspects of sexual reproductive health projects and programs; from design through planning, decision making and implementation, they are more familiar with and understand issues affecting them more than anyone.
The collective knowledge, learned lessons, and shared experiences from others will inform my work in family planning programming for adolescent girls and young women in Nigeria.