By Jennifer Amadi
In my first year at university, my roommate and close friend Kathy inadvertently became pregnant. She was only 18. The daughter of a religious leader and a promising student, she had her whole life ahead of her. But she was unready to be a mother and feared the stigma of an unplanned pregnancy. So she tried to end the pregnancy herself.
She lost her life in the process.
It’s been more than eight years since the day I lost Kathy. And yet after all this time, not enough has changed for Nigeria’s youth when it comes to taboos, shame, contraceptives and unplanned pregnancies.
The truth is young women across Nigeria are still regularly denied the basic tools and information they need to plan their lives and protect their health.
I’ve seen the consequences first-hand in my work as a reproductive health advocate. Young women who become pregnant by mistake drop out of school, lose job prospects, and can be coerced into teenage marriages. Thousands more like Kathy die each year as they attempt to hide their shame by seeking unsafe abortions. Left and right, futures are stolen by the burden of teenage pregnancy.
The young women of Nigeria stand at over 10 million strong, and yet…
At home, the topic of reproductive health is shrouded in taboo.
At clinics, they are told they are too young to need contraceptives, or that the services they want are not available.
Even at school, our girls are not taught about safe sex or the basics of fertility.
And in adulthood, the situation doesn’t improve much. Across our country, only 14.7% of women who want to delay or prevent pregnancy are using a modern contraceptive method. Last year alone, over 1.1 million pregnancies in were unintended.
I know our government officials are trying. Just two weeks ago, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said the country must take urgent steps to avoid a ‘time bomb scenario’ of unchecked population growth, highlighting the low rates of contraceptive use. But we need to be doing more to address the unique needs of youth. Unplanned pregnancies among young people undermine opportunities for education and employment, exacerbate poverty and perpetuate gender inequities. For the sake of Nigeria’s future, this needs to change.
Over 900,000 teenagers give birth in Nigeria each year, the highest rate in sub-Saharan Africa. Imagine what our communities and our economy would look like if they had the chance to finish school and join the workforce instead?
We need to give our young women the chance to choose to have smaller families, later in life, that they’re better able to support. We need to give them a chance to contribute to the social and economic development of our country. Because it is small changes like these that have the potential to shift the demographics of our country.
We can give our youth a chance to make an impact. So many young women that I meet want to be a part of the movement that brings Nigeria toward the demographic dividend and helps our economy grow. And with a population of over 10 million young women, changing the trajectory of their lives can affect the entire nation.
Our youth are not the only ones with unmet family planning needs. Around the world, thousands of advocates are gathering, calling for greater youth access to family planning as I write these words. Some are hosting events in their home countries today in recognition of World Contraception Day, while others are preparing to travel to Kigali, Rwanda in November for the 2018 International Conference on Family Planning. Together, they are starting a global movement I ardently support.
But nothing will change if we relegate these conversations to isolated events and conferences held at a safe distance. We need you to join us now, here in Nigeria, in making an investment in our shared future.
If you are a parent, consider the life opportunities your daughter, who is sexually active (or who is in an intimate relationship) might have if you give her your blessings by ensuring that she receives comprehensive information on contraception and preventing unintended pregnancy.
If you are a health care provider, consider how many lives you can change if you offer counseling and services to youth.
And if you are a politician or leader, consider what young people can do for our country if you support their access to a range of family planning options. Nigerian policies do a good job of acknowledging the importance providing services to youth, but on the ground, significant gaps remain. For family planning services to be truly youth-friendly, they need to ensure young people have access to a variety of contraceptive options, without judgement, that they are able to afford. To help our young people succeed, we must commit to these efforts 100%, no less.
My friend Kathy didn’t finish school. She didn’t start a career or get married or chase her dreams. Beyond the emotional loss her loved ones faced, the country lost something wonderful: the potential of a Nigerian girl poised to enter the world and give back to her country.
Kathy’s story doesn’t have to be a common one. We can make it rare. We just need to ask ourselves: How will we support Nigeria’s youth in planning their families and their futures?
I ask that you carefully consider your role and response. Your answer and your actions will determine the future for Nigeria’s girls, and for all of us.
Jennifer Amadi is the Co-Founder and Program Advisor for Knit Together Initiative (KTI) and a 120 under 40 winner – new family planning leaders. She is the host of a World Contraception Day event taking place in Port Harcourt today. The event is one of 15+ satellite events happening around the world in the lead-up to the International Conference on Family Planning. For more information go to www.fpconference.com/2018.