|Building Support for Adolescent Health Education and Services in Nigeria: Reflections from the Exper|
Adenike Esiet, Executive Director, AHI (Nigeria)
Building Support for Adolescent Health Education and Services in Nigeria: Reflections from the Experience of Action Health Incorporated
As a result, most Nigerian adolescents have had sexual intercourse by age 20 and often with more than one partner. And the HIV epidemic is on the verge of exploding. More than half of all reported AIDS cases in Nigeria over the last three years were among 15-24 year olds. Girls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and sexual abuse even in their own homes by close family members. All across Nigeria, there are many young people dealing with challenges around their sexuality, with little or no support from parents or communities.
AHI's Adolescent Health Programme
We started out with school-based awareness raising activities, reaching only a few hundred young people. Today, AHI serves more than 30,000 adolescents a year through our youth center, clinic, and in-school peer education programs.
We also focus advocacy efforts on ensuring that all the international agreements and treaties signed by Nigeria are translated into action at the local level. For example, we set up several meetings with Education Ministry officials in Lagos to ensure that girls who become pregnant while still in school are not expelled. We distribute fact sheets and easy-to-read materials to officials to acquaint them with the reality of girls and boys lives outside the classrooms. We encourage them to visit our programmes to see for themselves the difference they could make if they would change policy so that many more young people have access to sexuality and reproductive health education in the school system. We pursue this goal so vigorously because we believe that putting in place the appropriate guidelines is the only way we can achieve long-term systemic change for young people. Thanks to the work of several NGOs and other groups in Nigeria, many community-based responses have emerged over the last decade to change the adolescent sexual and reproductive health landscape.
Nigeria's Journey with Sexuality Education and Services for Adolescents
But Nigeria's accomplishments have not, by any means, come easily. They came as a result of the dogged commitment of several courageous actors who dared to challenge the status quo under the dark days of military dictatorship. They were also the result of changing national circumstances, namely the national HIV/AIDS epidemic, which has woken up many of those who were either in denial or deep slumber.
Pushing the Boundaries to Accommodate Adolescents' Needs
1. Get the Support of Parents and Community Leaders
Without parents and community members' support, it is impossible to successfully provide adolescents with the kind of education they need to adopt safe and responsible sexual behavior. Naturally, parents want to protect their children from harm, and many of them genuinely believe that the way to do this is by withholding information about sexuality so that their children do not begin to experiment with sex prematurely.
We help parents understand the importance of communicating openly and factually with their children. We encourage them to ask questions about the approaches we utilize at AHI, and many of them end up asking for help in communicating effectively with their children. Today, parents of the young people we serve have become our greatest allies. Apart from peers and publications, parents and school officials rank third as the most important source for referrals to our program.
2. Build Alliances with Other Stakeholders
Based on the convictions and collective wisdom of all these allies, we were able to create great change at this conference, held in the capital city of Abuja in 1999. Three hundred-fifty stakeholders from non-governmental and governmental agencies, including young people, endorsed a national framework for addressing adolescent reproductive health in Nigeria.
3. Be Proactive in the Media and Frame the Discourse
In Nigeria, we have worked hard with the media to clarify the difference between the terms "sex" and "sexuality." We continue to reinforce that "sexuality education" is the correct term for the work we do because of its comprehensive nature in emphasizing the social, cultural, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of our humanity rather than just reproduction, anatomy, and disease prevention. We have consistently shared with our media colleagues research findings that show that fear-based education evokes negative feelings about our sexuality and inhibits learning about sexuality and promoting sexual health.
Our own experience in dealing with the opposition has also taught us that we have to engage representatives of the media, not just by providing coverage of our events, but also by helping them to understand our work, so that instead of sensationalizing information, they present it completely and factually. We allow them open access to our libraries for referencing, provide background materials for their reports, and stand ready to provide them with technical information when required. Thus, we position ourselves as a valuable resource for their work.
Nigeria still requires a lot of support for its programmatic interventions, so long it doesn't involve the mass importation of fear-based, abstinence only education or inadequate health services that don't respond to young people. For any programme to achieve the objective of getting young people to adopt responsible sexual behaviour, it must give factual and complete information, provide choices and address young people's diverse needs. The last thing Nigerians need is any intervention that will rob us of the gains we are beginning to make with guiding our country's adolescents safely through the crossroads.
Finally, I would like to leave you with some thoughts about a 12-year-old Nigerian girl for whom this work would have made a whole world of difference. She is a student at the most prestigeous girls' secondary school in Nigeria. The principal of this school wrote me last year to ask that I come and do a sexuality training for her students. I felt that my services were needed more in the low-income communities and public schools, since surely these girls are better off. But just the other day this principal sent me an SOS. Something horrible had happened. This 12-year-old girl, who had never been told anything about sex, was lured into an abandoned room and raped by a teacher. After the school found out and had him arrested, the principal received nearly a dozen anonymous letters from current students, saying that they too had been assaulted by him. The man had worked at the school for 13 years.
This incident illustrates how important work in this field is, and how important it is that we reach all adolescents, regardless of background or income.
This speech was part of Adolescents at the Crossroads, a panel presentation on adolescent sexuality education organized by IWHC in cooperation with Aahung (Pakistan), Action Health Incorporated (Nigeria), the Youth Coalition, the United Nations Population Fund, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank, during the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children (May 8-10, 2002).