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Women Deliver Young Leaders Advocate to Advance RMNCAH in Nigeria

By: Ajidagba Emman Babatunde, Women Deliver Young Leader Alumnus

Young people took center stage at a three-day inaugural summit titled “Accountability Now, Advancing RMNCAH in Nigeria,” organized by the Federal Ministry of Health in collaboration with Champions for Change, the public health institute, and other major stakeholders with supports from many international organizations including Women Deliver on February 16-18, 2016. The aim of the summit was to incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs)into the country’s effort to ensure the accountability of life-saving health care delivery for marginalized women, newborns, children and youths in Nigeria. The summit was an advocacy conference on Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH), where key leaders, innovators, and technical experts aimed to highlight the need and opportunities for RMNCAH within Nigeria.

At the summit, four of Women Deliver’s Young Leaders, Jennifer Chinonye Amadi, Onyeka Akunana, Adebisi Adenipekun and Cecilia Aransiola held an interactive dialogue, and discussed their experiences advocating for RMNCAH in Nigeria. The panel was moderated by Tunde Ajidagba, an alumnus of the Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Each panelist is doing work to promote young people sexual and reproductive health and right in Nigeria, including grassroots advocacy, media engagement initiatives, health promotion services in rural areas and community-based rights protection efforts. They also provided insight into the challenges young people face and how to meaningfully engage and empower young people as part of RMNCAH solutions.

When young people do not have access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, their wellbeing and health may be at risk. Limited access to sexual and reproductive health information can result in unsafe sex practices, as well as unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion, which can lead to death. Every day in developing countries, 20,000 girls under the age of 18 give birth, totaling 7.3 million births a year. Adolescent pregnancy is often not the result of a deliberate choice; rather absence of choices. By and large, Nigerian youths do not have access to information on sexual and reproductive health, and those who are courageous enough to ask for contraceptives face stigma from the society and health providers.

Nigeria’s weak legal framework was also identified as a challenge at the summit. Contradictory clauses in the laws of Nigeria on child marriage, along with a lack of harmonization on existing laws and ineffective enforcement of laws, are all issues that must be addressed. Child Rights Act 2003 sets the legal age for marriage at 18. However, it has yet  to be implemented by all states of the federation. Section.29 (4)(a) of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution provides that "full age" means the age of 18 and above. However Section.29 (4)(b) provides that any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age, This clause should be deleted. Early and forced marriage is one of the challenges that young people, specifically young girls face, and they have less exposure to SRHR information and services. It drives young girls out of school, limits their income earning opportunities later in life, and hampers their health through the high incidence of VVF after child birth.

Another challenge is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is a procedure that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. FGM is a violation of Article 34 of the Child Rights Act 2003 in the Nigeria constitution, which states that "No person shall tattoo or make a skin mark on a child." While this act awaits adoption and implementation in all states of the federation, 19.9 million girls and women have undergone Female genital Mutilation in Nigeria. FGM has many health risks, including severe pain, severe bleeding and shock, complications in pregnancy and childbirth, and more. In addition to these health consequences, there are psycho-sexual, psychological and social consequences.

Enough of inviting young people to participate in decision-making processes/meetings to simply tick boxes or take photographs. Young people must be deeply involved in the planning and implementation of policies and programs that affect them. Meaningful youth participation involves recognizing and nurturing the strengths, interests, and abilities of young people through the provision of real opportunities to become involved in decisions that affect them at individual and systemic levels . Engage young people early and long enough so that they have a sense of ownership of youth policies and programs. Nothing for us without us, as they say.

For example, before the updated Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health was launched, adolescents and young people were given opportunity to provide their input. The same strategy should be applied in Nigeria. Before policies concerning young people are made, they should be given opportunity to share their thoughts to ensure that their concerns are effectively addressed, as they can best speak to what affects them. Additionally, young people should be directly involved in the implementation, monitoring, reporting, and evaluation of policies to achieve successful change efforts.

Young people also need funding from the Nigerian government to implement effective and youth-targeted interventions on SRHR. Trust is vital. Global organizations like Women Deliver provide young advocates with seed grants for SRHR projects, entrusting young people to create a safe and better world for all. Young people must be involved in accountability through government review mechanisms, whereby youth organizations from diverse backgrounds can hold the government accountable and reinforce their commitments towards achieving the SDGs.

Ultimately, we must see a significant shift in thinking and practice from the Nigerian government. Young people must be allowed to take ownership of our issues and we must be trusted to make change. If we want a prosperous and healthy nation, Nigeria must harness the talents of all of our citizens. Young people are no longer waiting to be given a seat or a space; we are grabbing and demanding it and ensuring that our voices are heard. Young people are no longer just future leaders; we are leading now to demand our right to sexual and reproductive health.

Photo courtesy of Mark Tuschman 

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