Dr. Biodun Awosusi
Adolescent pregnancy in Northern Nigeria is a worrisome health and human right issue that requires urgent attention. Many girls are forced into early marriages, almost always without their consent. They are denied education and several life opportunities. A significant number experience complications during pregnancy, labor and postnatal period.
As we celebrate World Population Day, I have decided to echo an important call by Nigerian adolescent girls for help! They call on us today to help them. They have voices that are barely audible. They cry in their rooms and huts waiting for us to stand up for them! They are waiting for us to bear their heavy cross. They wail during labor. They shed tears many times after delivery. Would you join me to stand up for them?
First, you need to why.
According to the 2008 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), released Monday 8th July in Abuja by the National Population Commission (NPC), Nigeria’s adolescent fertility rate also stands at 121 live births per 1,000. This is very high compared with South Africa with 58 per 1,000 and Ghana with 63 per 1,000. It is highest in Katsina and lowest in Edo State. It is generally higher in North.
NPC Chairman, Chief Festus Odimegwu asserted that the rising incidence of teenage pregnancy is due to poverty, sexual abuse, ignorance, cultural and religious beliefs. UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin supports this position. He said, on his World Population Day message, that adolescent pregnancy “is deeply rooted in poverty, gender inequality, violence, child and forced marriage, power imbalances between adolescent girls and their male partners, lack of education, and the failure of systems and institutions to protect their rights.”
In many parts of Nigeria, culture limits several women. They are denied education and not allowed to actively participate in community activities. Men in such communities believe women are created to cook and give birth. This, of course, is not meant to be. Despite growing interest in women empowerment and gender equality, a number of community stakeholders deeply resent such calls. They believe it will take women away from their perceived roles.
Poverty is another major obstacle against rights of women. According to the Coordinating Minister of the economy and Nigeria’s minister of finance, Prof. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, there are about 80million girls and women in Nigeria: this represents half of the entire population! But a large majority is poor and vulnerable. This poverty drives many families to give their children to the ‘rich’ in marriage at an early age despite its consequences.
The forces of poverty and cultural barriers crush every iota of strength in any woman who decides to say no early pregnancy and its kin, adolescent pregnancy. In an impressive account by Annabel Erulkar and Mairu Bello titled ‘The experience of married adolescent girls in Northern Nigeria, the authors showed that the menace is common in Northern Nigeria and early marriages are usually organized by the families of the girls against the latter’s wishes.
“Early marriage is a common feature of girls’ adolescence in Northern Nigeria, yet few programs are in place to support this sizeable and vulnerable group”, they noted, adding that “married girls lacked knowledge on reproductive health, including HIV/AIDS and pregnancy and the experience of pregnancy and childbirth was confusing and traumatic.”
This is not just a health issue but a development one as Prof. Osotimehin pointed out especially when we realize that one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in Nigeria is unsafe abortions related to teenage pregnancy. Many adolescents do not know enough about their sexuality. They know little about pregnancy. And they suffer various pregnancy complications without receiving appropriate care. Many are even barred from getting necessary medical care as culture precludes men from attending to women. If a male skilled birth attendant is the only doctor in a community, he may not be able to see an adolescent with complicated labor. And a possible result: wasted lives!
These adolescents call on us today to help them. They live in huts without anyone to listen to them. They have voices that are barely audible. They cry in their rooms and huts waiting for us to stand up for them! They are waiting for us to bear their heavy cross. They wail during labor. They shed tears many times after childbirth. They are confused and in need of our help.
Our movement can break barriers to a good life for these adolescents. First, every girl should be educated. We must say it everywhere, all the time and in every avenue. Why? The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has the best answer: “When a young girl is educated, she is more likely to marry later, delay childbearing until she is ready, have healthier children, and earn a higher income”.
Second, cultural barriers to female empowerment should be removed through effective social marketing. We need to step up our campaign to protect the rights of girls and women. Community stakeholders particularly religious and traditional rulers should be effectively mobilized and convinced of the value on female education and access to reproductive health information and services. It will not be easy but it is possible.
Third, we need to actively invest in female empowerment through income generating activities. These can help them develop useful life and business skills. Their children can go to school and they live healthy lives.
In my submission to the World Bank Open Forum 2012, I proposed cultural reform as a tool to remove these barriers: “A woman is the center of the family, and of the society. But many cultures have stiffened this role. We need to see women differently: they are important! When we all see them differently, it becomes easier to invest in their education, entrepreneurial prowess and participation in society.” This is really the way to go!
Who should help them? I am convinced Prof. Osotimehin says it well: “We call on Governments, the international community and all stakeholders involved to take measures that enable adolescent girls to make responsible life choices and to provide the necessary support for them in cases when their rights are threatened”. This is my clarion call. Will you heed it today?