We Nigerians pride ourselves on being the biggest and the best – the most populous country in Africa with one of the top ranked national football teams.
But not all top ten lists are a source of pride. We have the second largest HIV epidemic in the world and one of the highest rates of new infection in sub-Saharan Africa. We also have one of the highest fertility rates in the world one of the highest rates of motherhood starting in adolescence.
Today is World AIDS Day and it’s time for us to do better. Young Nigerians need tools to protect themselves from both HIV and unintended pregnancy – and that means improving the Family Life HIV Education (FLHE) taught in junior secondary schools across the country.
In most states, including Rivers where I work, when Family Life and HIV Education is taught at all in schools, the lessons tend to focus only on abstinence. Young people are told of the dangers of HIV and early pregnancy, but given no information on modern contraception, HIV prevention or where to go to seek preventative health services.
The reasoning behind this censorship is the fear that talking to young people about sexual and reproductive health will encourage young people to become sexually active at a younger age. The reality is that adolescent pregnancy and early marriage are widespread, with rates varying dramatically by region. Nearly 3/4 women in the North West began childbearing during adolescence compared to just under 1/3 in the South West.
Family Life and HIV Education isn’t driving promiscuity. Lack of family life education is a driving force of these unacceptably high rates.
My organization, Knit Together initiative, works to shift this reality. Our aim is to support more young people to attain their dreams and aspirations. That means helping them stay healthy and stay in school by helping them stay HIV negative and postpone parenthood until a time when they are ready.
We are recipients of a Generation Now small grant, an initiative supported by Women Deliver and the International AIDS Society, working to ensure that conversations about HIV among young people and their sexual and reproductive health and rights aren’t segregated or sidelined.
These issues aren’t separated in a young person’s life. They should be discussed together as part of family life education – and we need youth-friendly clinics where young people can access both pregnancy and HIV prevention services under one roof.
Knit Together Initiative brings young people together to review FLHE curriculum taught in secondary schools – and to advocates to make family life education better. We face many obstacles, including the stigma around talking about young people and sex.
So far in Nigeria, only Lagos state has updated its curriculum. We’re pushing for change to see similar improvements in Rivers and across the country – to make sure young people know how to protect themselves, know where to go to seek health care and to make sure health centres offer youth-friendly services.
It’s tough work, but the payoff could benefit all of society. Recent analysis from the Guttmacher Institute estimates that if all adolescent women in sub-Saharan Africa who need modern contraceptives were able to use them, we would see a 2.6 million drop in unintended pregnancies per year, 1.2 million fewer abortions nearly all of which would have been unsafe, 338,000 fewer miscarriages and stillbirths and 4,100 fewer maternal deaths.
To amplify our message, we use social media and target traditional media to spread the word. We use social interactions to build community support for young people accessing information and services.
Research shows that education, wealth and ethnicity are all factors influencing sexual and reproductive health. We can’t control the family we are born into, but we can strive to access education and support others to do the same.
On World AIDS Day, we invite you to lend your voice to the call for better family life education and youth-friendly services across the country and across the continent. Let’s be number one in football, not teen pregnancy and HIV rates.
Jennifer Amadi is the founder of Knit Together Initiative and a Women Deliver Young Alumnae.