By Sola Ogundipe
Elizabeth Joseph is only 16, but her intellect belies her age. “Nigeria’s future is bright and I’m a part of Nigeria’s future, so my future is bright,” she remarked enthusiastically.
“We experience fun. Here we are taught various skills; we learn to be healthy and to look healthy, and how to communicate with others.
I have been coming here regularly and I have learned a number of skills. Among these are bead-making, gele tying, and Ankara craft.
But the main lesson for me is being taught how to stand up for myself and not fall into the wrong hands to be taken advantage of.“
Solape Olutoye, another adolescent girl, is a frequent visitor to the PHC. ”I come here regularly and I learn something new each time.
I have made friends and learned how to make good use of my hands. I make some handcraft and other things which I have been able to sell in order to make some money.
For me, the key lesson from the 9Ja Girls experience is that it has enabled me to be more mentally mature. And that means a lot in this environment.”
Elizabeth and Solape are among the dozens of girls aged 15-19 who gather daily at the Agbelekale Olota PHC to access the youth-friendly services provided there, courtesy of the Adolescent Girls 360 9Ja Girls project.
Girls at the Centre are united by a common aspiration. The spoke recently during an open house at the Primary Health Centre in Alimoso Local Government Authority in Lagos.
Growing up as a girl in Nigeria is a challenge that gets tougher in adolescence. Barriers ranging from marriage and economic independence force many girls in this age bracket to drop out of school.
Many adolescent girls are disadvantaged when compared to their male counterparts.
It is in the effort to address these issues that the 9Ja Girls initiative was born. It is an innovative approach to improve the sexual and reproductive health of adolescent girls aged 15 – 19.
In the 9Ja Girls space, there is freedom of expression and boldness. In these spaces, young girls have a clear vision for their future.
The platform is helping them to cope with the economic, social, and contextual barriers towards achieving these dreams.
The Adolescent Girls 360 project is being catered for by the Society For Family Health, SFH, under the Adolescent 360 (A360) Project led by Population Services International, PSI.
9ja Girls is a trusted system that empowers and supports girls and their communities towards improving adolescent sexual and reproductive health, through social and economic development that centers on supporting girls’ knowledge, skills and confidence to aspire and achieve their life goals,” said Ms. Fatima Mohammed the Project Director, Adolescent 360.
It aims to create safe spaces where girls can speak their minds and get support from people they trust.
“One of the aims of the 9Ja Girls is to revolutionise how unmarried adolescent girls access sexual and reproductive health services and this is done by providing them with an appropriate platform to acquire the right skills for life, love, and health and knowledge through a network of youth-friendly service providers.
All these are integrated into the primary health care centres to make youth-friendly services available and accessible to the girls.”
Mohammed says the 9jaGirls space is personal and personalised for each girl and offers a sense of safety and freedom. There, the girls learn about their bodies and sexual health with trust. Part of the agenda is to increase the uptake of modern contraceptives and reduce unintended pregnancies so the girls have access to modern contraception
The 9ja Girls Skills classes are where teenage girls are offered a wide variety of classes to learn skills for life, love, and health.
The 9ja Girls Clinic is a girls-only safe space, where girls take vocational skills classes, learn about topics related to love, dating, relationships, and sexual and reproductive health, have private one-on-one counseling and receive health services from trained counselors and providers.
“We counsel them for skills for life, love, and health, to enable them to know the difference between love and life, by giving them negotiation skills,” said Peace Anya, a provider that counsels girls of age 15-19 and talks to them about their skills, love, and health.
“In skills for health we talk about menstruation, personal health and everything they need to know as young adolescent girls, they have questions they want to relay to us and we explain in detail to them. We tell them what it takes to be a girl and what it means to be growing up as a girl child.
“Other than Saturdays, there is a programme held Monday to Friday called “The Working Section” during which the girls approach the counsellors and talk about things bothering them. They relate life experiences generally including their studies and academics. “
Peace who said the 9Ja Girls generally talk about their health and relationships remarked that working with the girls has been a revelation.
“When they come for counseling, we are not biased. We let them know that adolescence is a time that you get to like people a lot but you have to know what you really want.
You have to ask yourself, would this relationship help you to achieve your personal goals or would it distract or lead you astray? If you are not ready to be sexually active and a boy keeps pressuring or forcing you, talk to him and inform him that you are not ready.
The Centre runs a monthly interactive programme called ‘The Mum Section’, during which mobilisers invite mothers to the programme where they are informed about how to relate with their adolescent girls.
“The girl child these days are very delicate, you need to pay attention to them. It is an interactive session where we talk to them in detail on issues bothering their children.
This is because they might have instilled fear in them and have made them scared of explaining themselves to their mothers, they come to us and are free to tell us their problems because we are young and are almost of the same age range.”
The Principal Nursing Officer in charge of the Agbelekale PHC and 9Ja girls facility, Mrs. Isiolaotan Olubanke Ajoke, noted that major concerns of the girls vary but all of them need someone to confide in, as most cannot confide in their parents.
“We take the mother’s forum every month because the girls find it easy to interact with somebody of their age and when carried along, feel free and speak up. Their major problem is getting someone who they can confide in.
“We don’t teach them to hate boys, they do not hate boys but they must first of all love themselves. We teach them, self-love, first.
When you love yourself and have respect for yourself, you would have the ability to stand for yourself.
Unlike the past where we say don’t sit near boys, you would become pregnant. We don’t teach them that. We encourage them to relate as friends but to be matured in character.”
She said the programme has led to a tremendous impact on the community and society at large.
“Now, the rate at which we have teenage pregnancy and abortion has reduced and girls are now generating income with the skills they have learned.”