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Adolescent girls decry gender-based violence, demand reproductive health rights

Sola Ogundipe

Synderella Bulus, Grace Maduka and Aishatu Idris are three of a kind. Young, passionate and determined, they are adolescents representing the voices of girls and women in Nigeria on their reproductive health  rights.

Recently, during a media roundtable in Abuja, they spoke out in unison about the vices of gender-based violence, stigmatisation, and all forms of stereotyping against girls, as well stereotyping the inexplicable policies and practices at all levels that leave girls confused and unhappy.

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The roundtable, jointly organised by the Federal Ministry of Health and Society for Family Health to mark the 2019 International Day of the Girl Child was an eye opener.

The trio demanded urgent action towards resolving the issues at stake.

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“The girl child wants her voice to be heard; she wants to work, pursue a career and become relevant in the society without restriction; she wants to be at liberty to marry at will and to a man of her choice,” declared Synderella, a young designer with the Adolescents 360 Project implemented by Society for Family Health.

In her presentation titled: “What Does the Nigerian Girl Child Want?” , she averred that most adolescent girls lack parental care and support as they are seen to soon end up in a man’s house as wives, and while finances are readily available for other things, it is usually not for the girl child’s education as she is not made a priority.

When the girl child is educated, she is coerced to study a particular course, and not the course of her choice just because she is a girl. Worse, girls are pressured into not coming back home after graduation without getting all set for marriage.

Synderella, also, expressed concern over poor communication between the girl child and her mother, particularly on issues around reproductive health, adding that girls from broken homes lack proper parenting, and so lack support systems for advice and counselling.

Grace, an out-of-school girl from Kurudu District, Karshi Road in the FCT, charged that it is necessary to educate mothers because many don’t understand sexual and reproductive health and rights issues, particularly rape; rather they’re judgmental.

“A girl is raped and is in pain, and all her mother has to says, ‘What were you wearing?'”

Grace lamented that some girls get pregnant through rape, and they’re afraid to talk to their mothers or other elders because they are going to be insulted, judged or crucified; so they go to friends who may not know much either.

“They end up in some small clinic for abortion, and in the end lose their wombs. There is need for intervention programmes to educate mothers in the communities.”

As for Aishatu,  out-of-school girl, based in Gwagwalada, FCT, “Most mothers have no good relationship with their daughters. Once your mother gives birth to you, you’re on your own. They don’t educate girls.”

Aishatu also spoke of the need for intervention programmes for boys, saying that the preponderance of intervention programmes catering to girls alone was unhealthy.

“Boys are left out. One of my male friends once asked me, ‘Why is it just girls, girls, girls? Did God create only girls? We girls are just much more vulnerable, but then a girl can’t impregnate herself,” Aishatu waxed philosophical.

Many other girls spoke, even as they received support from a cross section of stakeholders from government, the development sector and the Nigerian Civil Society. They identified the policy inconsistencies or lack of policy on issues that clearly need legal or policy direction, and failure to implement laws or punishment for gender-related offences.

In the views of the Deputy Director, Gender, Adolescents, School Health and Elderly Care – GASHE, Mrs Oluyemisi Ayoola, “It is a beautiful thing that we’re programming for girls and giving them wings to fly, but oftentimes the wings are clipped by some of the relationships they start.

“If we really want our adolescent girls to soar, we cannot leave out adolescent boys. We should also programme for boys because, if we’re aiming for demographic dividends, we cannot achieve it with the girls alone. Boys are also abused. Boys need to learn about relationships – that love is not sex, and if a girl says “no”, her “no” is “no”.

Hajiya Fatima Muhammad, Project Director, Adolescents 360 Project explained the attention paid to girls thus: “We seem to be more concerned about girls because it is girls who bear the brunt of the things that are not right about SRH in Nigeria, and violence from males-pregnancy, stigma, trauma etc.

However, the  Chairman of the Association for the Advancement of Family Planning, Dr Ejike Oji, noted that the event was an opportunity to discuss issues of inequality that affect girls and make it impossible for them to have access to education, nutrition, legal rights, medical care, and even protection from discrimination.

“In Nigeria, it has become an issue right now – if you look at what is happening in the insurgent states, in the IDP camps where women and girls who have run for dear life and are being abused by the same people that we have given the responsibility to protect them. There is a lot of sexual violence going on in the insurgent states as we speak.”

Other salient issues he mentioned were that forced marriages and marriages to “toddlers” are rife while the nation does “ostrich hiding” pretending girls are not sexually active, thereby sending them to “the gallows” and exposing them to harm. “Age of sexual debut in Nigeria is around 15/16 years; they’re still girls, but there is insufficient exposure to family planning, which is why contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) is at a lowly 10 per cent while some countries take FP to secondary schools and thereby have substantial CPRs.

A major policy inconsistency identified at the roundtable is around age of access to RH services and age of consent to sex, around which there is no national consensus. While legally, the age at which a person can consent to sex is 18 years, marriage to minors is acceptable under Islamic law and is commonly practiced.

A policy to set age of consent at 14 years has been mired in controversy and remains a draft. Stakeholders say they do not know the status of the policy.

“Now, as the voice of the youth, we’re calling on the government, we’re calling on parents, political leaders, all policy makers, to create systems and structures that will address these issues and create conducive spaces for girls to access services, particularly RH services, so that their lives will be unscripted and unstoppable. We don’t want girls to be stopped, we want to be heard, we want to be unstoppable, we don’t want you to create lives for us,” charged Synderella Bulus.

The Head of the Nigeria Gender Programme of the United Nations Population Fund,  Dr. Zubaida Abubakar,  who gave a rundown of the relevant statistics  said out of a population of 17 million girls aged 10-19 yrs, 56.7 percent had primary education while 45.7 percent had  secondary education. She said 11.6 percent were married by age of 15 while 23 percent of girls aged 15-19 experienced teenage pregnancy in 2015.

Nigerian girls represent a big part of the population but also of the whole African population with 1 in every 62 Africans being a young Nigerian girl. These girls have the potential to be a huge resource for Nigeria but currently only 56% have a primary education. 11% are already married at the age of 15, and one third (28%) by the age of 19. Many of them become mothers before age 19, with high risk of maternal deaths and complications, and more than 17,000 girls die every year because of these complications. One third of them experience physical or sexual violence.

Currently, Nigeria has the largest number of child brides in Africa and one of the highest early marriage prevalence rates in the world and accounts for the third highest number of women and girls who have undergone female genital mutilation reported at 25 percent prevalence.

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