By Gabriel Olawale
The Nigerian girl child is more likely to suffer female genital mutilation, early sexual debut, sexual abuse and violence, premarital sex, unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion or drop out of school than her counterparts in many other parts of the developing world. This has been the trend over the years.
Sekinat was only 11 when she had her first sexual experience. It was unpleasant and over before she knew it, but happened several other times with the same person. Her story is typical of many girls and young women in this environment.
Felicia had wanted to finish school and get a good job, but her poor parents could not afford to send her to school. Worse still, on the excuse that they did not want her to live in poverty forever, she was married off at 13 to a man more than three times her age. Today, at 19, Felicia has three children and is pregnant with the fourth. Her dreams of getting an education are effectively dashed.
Even growing into an adult does little to liberate the Nigerian woman’s woes in matters of reproductive health such as family planning, contraception, child spacing among others.
Few months after Ijeoma, had her first baby, it was with shock she realised she was pregnant again. It was a difficult pregnancy because her first baby was still so immature, and was barely a year old by the time she put to bed the second time. But less than four months afterwards, Ijeoma became pregnant the third time.
She was surprised, upset and helpless. Her second baby was just over a year old when she put to bed the third time. In three years, she had borne three children. This unplanned childbearing took enormous toll on their health.
Sekinat, Felicia and ijeoma had never heard about contraception or family planning simply because nobody had ever told them about it. The World Health Organisation, WHO, says family planning enables individuals and couples to anticipate and attain their desired number of children and the spacing and timing of their births. It is achieved through use of contraceptive methods and the treatment of involuntary infertility.
In these parts, women are often shackled by the dictates of underdevelopment ranging from cultural, social, religious, ethnic and even racial factors. Often a woman cannot negotiate sex, even in marriage because of cultural norms and/or taboos.
Due to religious and cultural sensitivities, Nigerians live in denial of just how common teenage sex is. The glaring reality was revealed by the Demographic Health Survey (DHS) in 2013. Only three in ten women reported to first have had sexual intercourse at the age of 20 or later, while 54 percent said they had done so before turning 18. A stunning 24 perent indicated that they had not even been 15 yet.
The DHS also showed that a mere two percent of sexually active girls between 15 and 19 use contraceptives. An important reason is that they do not have access to contraceptives. It should thus not surprise anybody that 23 percent of the girls in this age group have children.
Some girls get pregnant because of voluntary early sex and peer pressure. Others are sexually abused or forced to marry early. In general, they lack proper sex education and information on contraceptives.
Inexperienced teenagers hardly demand that their male partner wear a condom. All too often, they are taken advantage of.
The impacts of teenage pregnancy often ruins girls’ lives, whether they are married or not, whether they engaged in sex willingly or were forced. Typically, they drop out of school and do not acquire any skills that would help them earn money. If they aren’t married already, they normally end up in a bad marriage, wedded to their child’s father who often is too young for parenthood himself.
In many cases, the girls’ young bodies cannot cope with the stress of pregnancy and labour. Vaginal fistulas are a common consequence of lacking antenatal and postnatal care. The implication is that patients become incontinent and ostracised by society. All too often, surgery is not available or not done properly, so the persons concerned become marginalised in the long run.
Reacting to the situation, Coordinator, Children and Women against Child Sexual Abuse Initiative, Mrs Florence Ubajekwe, said that sexuality education was the responsibility of parents, teachers and members of the society.
Ubajekwe disclosed that sex education should start with parents, adding that it is an important subject that would help protect the health of the children and their future.
The coordinator said the major problem facing Nigeria parents and children was the shame and secrecy of discussing sex matters.
“A mother should mention every part of the child’s body from head to toe and call them by their names not nicknames,’’ she said.
Ubajekwe also said sexuality education would enable parents have control over what the children are exposed to about sex.
She noted that children, who received sex education at home, were less likely to engage in risky sexual activities.
“Sexual education increases the chances of teenagers having the courage to approach their parents and discuss with them when they are faced with difficult or dangerous situations.’’
According to her, parents and teachers must collaborate to educate the children on sex and what they should expect as it relates to puberty as they grow.
“From age five to eight, teach them body parts including the private parts, internal reproductive organs and to say ‘No’ to advances and sexual abuse.
“From age nine to 12, talk about friendship, family member relationship, puberty sign in details, menstruation, ejaculation, wet dreams in boys, sex, pornography and pregnancy,’’ Ubajekwe said.
An educationist, Mrs Gladys Grimmes also supported the introduction of sexuality education in schools, saying it would equip students to recognise the dangers of immorality at an early age.
She noted that the rate of sexual abuse of children has become a national embarrassment, stressing that it was necessary to educate the children on what to do when faced with such challenge.
Mrs Abebola Olubimo, a mother and sociologist, said sexuality education would give children the power to prevent themselves from sexual abuse.
“Knowledge, they say is power, and sexuality education should be taught in schools. I remember we had some semblance of sexuality education back in our days, but the information provided was not adequate.
“ It should not be a responsibility left to the parents because many parents shy away from it and feel it is inappropriate. Children are the nation’s future, sexuality education has direct overall effect on their development and so it should be a civic responsibility,” she said.
According to her, evidenced-based reports shows that many teenagers learn about sex and sexuality mostly from friends, the internet and television.
“If you do not teach them, someone else will; and it is very much likely to be the wrong information. It is important we let kids also know the concept of sexuality of two individuals; of two different sexes. Our responsibility as caregivers is to guide.
“Let them understand what the dangers are. What worked for us is not working for them. Don’t let them go through extreme culture shock with the realities of our time.
“Parents and teachers should work together to guide, show them and lead them in the right path,” she said.
On the contrary, Dr Adepeju Oti, a girl-child rights activist and Executive Director, Global Youth Leadership and Girl-Child Foundation, said sexuality education should be left to parents.
“It is better taught at home, especially at lower levels.
“Parents are presumed closer to their children. The sexual behaviour and orientation of some teachers and religious professionals makes me apprehensive to entrust it to teachers,” she said.
According to her, sexuality education is a very sensitive subject that is best approached with caution.
“Parents want to be in control of what and how much their children know about the subject even though many of them keep mute about it at home.
“However, I believe a child should know about sexuality as early as his or her curiosity begins to manifest.
“Starting from knowing his or her body and that of the other sex, I would say that should be learnt between age five to six.
“This is because by age 10, some girls are already menstruating. Children grow faster into puberty these days. The Nigerian child needs sexuality education absolutely because we are not in isolation from the rest of the world.
“There are no religious or cultural implications at all. The only fear is who is impacting the knowledge, how, and what,” she said.