“Success apparently looks different to many people, even with the same task. Personally, both learning from failures and successes spice up and inform my action and sustain gains”.
Tear Down Barriers for adolescents and youth sexual and reproductive health and rights represents a platform for youth-led advocacy that calls for state level action using social interactions of youth, decision makers, and influencers. Through technology, they work to increase community support for adolescents and youth sexual and reproductive healthcare services, including access to contraceptive information/services, HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and treatment in Rivers state. Engaging and coordinating the project’s different stakeholder groups through technology is sometimes challenging without reliable internet connectivity and an over-priced data bundle. One might expect less, but tenacity and strategic action have led to an ongoing update on the family life and HIV/AIDS education (FLHE) curriculum as a standalone subject in the state.
It is often said that we live in a digitalized world. This is true for some parts of the globe, but certainly not for many people who live in Africa, including, of course, Nigeria. However, with young people’s love for innovation, the use of technology continues to accelerate, specifically for urban youth.
Nigeria is home to more than 200 million people, with over 35% of the population under 30 years of age. I am just a year off this demography, navigating through lots of challenges with respect to health and well-being, and yet so much is promised on attaining the demographic dividend. #TearDownBarriers was implemented to empower young people with knowledge and skills to become change agents and advocate for increased community support for adolescents and youth SRHR in Rivers state. Through an online campaign, we engaged, organized and mobilized young advocates in Rivers State to demand for improved information on sex education that moves beyond the abstinence-only mantra taught in junior secondary schools.
The ‘Family Life and HIV/AIDS Education’ curriculum is a planned process of education that fosters the acquisition of factual information, formation of positive attitudes, beliefs and values, as well as the development of skills to cope with the biological, psychological, socio-cultural and spiritual aspect of humans with the objective to provide individuals with the necessary information and skills for rational decision making about their sexual health.
The word sex, for many, is not to be mentioned. It’s something that no one feels comfortable to say to anyone in conversation, not to mention among adolescents. Yet adolescents and young people get involved in romantic, intimate relationships and have sex without appropriate information to guide them on how best to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including getting quality care for those who carry their pregnancy to term.
Young people in Nigeria are increasingly accessing social media for information on sexuality, pleasure, and management of reproductive healthcare challenges. With the oversharing of information on social media, it becomes difficult to access scientifically accurate messages. Inappropriate and false information can lead to catastrophes, altering possible life pathways for many adolescents and youth, contrary to their aspirations and dreams.
Rosemary, a 24 year old graduate of Linguistics and Communications, said she never knew the importance and using social media for good, such as creating awareness and advocating for change. “Before now, my use of the social media was about taking pictures, sharing, and getting likes”, something she calls ‘slaying’. Fast forward to the present and she uses “technology, especially Twitter and Facebook, to provide accurate information on certain issues like female genital mutilation and even contraceptive information”.
According to Tamuno, a recent school graduate and one of the trained youth advocates, social media has a way of misrepresenting facts, far away from the reality. “In my second year in university, my girlfriend got pregnant and we weren’t ready to be parents at the time. The next option for us was to get information on social media. My girlfriend and I tried out what we read, and it almost led to more serious health complications, which shows the severity of issues young people are facing and the dangers of the sources of information they are turning to.”
“Most times I imagine how easy it would have been for young people to navigate through their sexual and reproductive health if family life and HIV/AIDS education was comprehensively taught in schools.” says Belema, a staffer of the Rivers State Secondary Schools Board with invested interest for the curriculum update. Fortunately for Belema and adolescents and young people, Rivers State is second to Lagos on reviewing the FLHE curriculum. The Knit Together Initiative (KTI) initiated efforts towards the review of the curriculum and ensured that what adolescents want is well captured and will be taught.
Adolescents and young people in Nigeria begin sexual relationships at a young age. They face challenges in obtaining appropriate information and services to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections including HIV . Available statistics also show that a high prevalence of unsafe sexual behavior, and consequently poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes, such as teenage pregnancy, unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections, are high among adolescents and youth in Nigeria. Sexual rights are a constellation of existing rights protected under laws and international agreements. According to the sexual rights initiative, “sexual rights resonate profoundly within existing human rights norms and standards including the rights to privacy, freedom of thought and expression, freedom from violence, the rights to education and information”.
Nigerian lawmakers are for the most part neglecting the realities and needs of adolescents and youth – albeit in the guise of morality – thereby bringing into jeopardy the reproductive health of young people across the country.
Should we continue to live in denial of just how common it is for young people to have sex, and thereby deny them the life changing information they need to make better decisions? If we do, this will be deeply unfair to the youth population and the generations to come.
While we celebrate the impact of technology on building community support for young people in realizing their sexual and reproductive health, let this inspire the remaining 34 states of the Federation to action.
Seeing the impact of this project – better use of technology for good, lives touched, and capacity built among adolescents and youth advocates who contributed to the reviewed curriculum – we hope that in practice, the Family Life and HIV/AIDS standalone curriculum would be effectively implemented by the Rivers State Government, providing comprehensive sexuality education and ensuring the health, rights, and well-being of young people in our communities.
1. UNFPA, 2014