Let Girls Lead is thrilled to celebrate International Day of the Girl 2014 (IDG) with a blog series written by amazing girl leaders involved in our work around the world. Today we share a piece by Somotochuku of Nigeria, who joins the discussions concerning girls in commemoration of IDG 2014. Somotochuku highlights the reality of teen pregnancy through statistics and personal stories, urging us all to work together and fight for sexual and reproductive health rights.
In university, I became friends with Oshoke, who, without knowing me, took me as a younger sister and supported me in various forms. We bonded well, so she felt confident in sharing her story. One evening, Oshoke told me she got pregnant during her first year in University. She was shocked when she realized she was pregnant; she couldn't believe having sexual intercourse for the first time could result in pregnancy. Immediately, she thought about how to manage the pregnancy. Her biggest challenge was that the boy with whom she had sex was a schoolmate, just as young as her. Oshoke managed to abort the pregnancy, but it left a scar on her mentally and she never truly got over the incident. Though we parted ways after she left the University, I recently reunited with her. She told me she currently works as an editor with one a large publishing house in Nigeria, is married but has no children. During our conversation, she recounted the story of the complications she suffered as a result of the abortion. Now, the doctors are saying that she cannot conceive because her womb was destroyed during the procedure. She has also been facing threats of divorce from her husband and abuse from her in-laws. The early unplanned pregnancy and subsequent abortion left an indelible and tragic mark in her life.
The second story relates to a lady I met recently while undertaking my national youth service. I was posted to a village called Otobi in Benue State of Nigeria. Each day along the route I took to get to the camp, I saw a girl who looked to be fifteen years old. She was married to a man far older than her - more her father's age - and she had a son who I assumed was two years old. For her, there is nothing wrong with being married at an early age. Discussions with people in the area indicated her parents gave her away for marriage so that they could have the money to cultivate their farm each farming season. The girl, however, had to drop out of school due to the marriage and pregnancy. Though she seemed content with her situation, this was still an innocent girl who had been forced into early wedlock, and whose unhappiness you could read on her face. Unfortunately I was never able to speak with her. But I felt certain that she was someone who had lost her self-esteem.
These two stories show that early pregnancy is indeed a preventable menace that needs to be addressed by civil society. We share a collective responsibility to girls everywhere to join this fight. To start, we need to ensure that every child receives an education, at least up to secondary school level, so they can secure a livelihood, as well as understand their reproductive health and rights. Second, we need to enlighten our girls on the dangers of early sex and pregnancy so they can learn to take preventive measures. Third, society must ensure that the legal system is reformed to protect and support young girls against rapists. The fight should lead to empowering girls to speak up without fear of stigmatization. The fight should also be directed at policy makers to ensure equitable distribution of resources, and improvements in living conditions in rural areas where the majority of young girls live.
To illustrate how serious the situation of early pregnancy is in Nigeria, I took a look at the recently published "Demographic and Health Survey 2013." In Nigeria, an estimated 23% of women aged 15-19 years have begun childbearing, of which 17% have had their first child and 5% are pregnant with their first child. Also, 32% of teenagers in rural areas have begun childbearing, as opposed to 10% in the urban areas of Nigeria. The report shows disparities within the geopolitical zones as follows: Northwest (36%); Northeast (32%); North Central (19%); South Central (12%); South East (8%); and South West (8%).
The statistics reveal a direct relationship between level of education and rate of early pregnancies. The northern parts of Nigeria, with the lowest literacy rates, have the highest rates of early pregnancies. The explanation given is that the higher the level of education, the higher the level of contraceptive use and awareness about risks and complications associated with early pregnancy. There is also a correlation between poverty levels and early pregnancies. The report observed that teenagers in the lowest wealth quintile are more than twice as likely to have started childbearing as those in the middle quintile, and almost 10 times as likely as those in the highest quintile. Education and poverty levels clearly impact the ability of young girls to negotiate sex, demand their health rights, and use preventative measures like contraception.
Other factors resulting in increased rates of pregnancies amongst young girls include rape, changes in societal values, and victimization. Rape cases are reported almost daily in Nigerian newspapers, and the victims are young girls. When pregnancies result, parents and family members force the young girl to marry the rapist for reasons such as their inability to care for the pregnant girls and fear of societal comments. The few parents who seek legal redress are frustrated by the corrupt and cumbersome justice system. Social norms, which expect young girls to maintain their sanctity, have broken down. It is therefore not uncommon to see girls indulging in all kinds of social vices, including unprotected sex. The educational institutions, which are supposed to help mold young girls, have become home to the victimization of young girls. Teachers at different levels of education are demanding sex from innocent girls. Those who refuse to yield are victimized. The situation in the work places is no different, as male bosses exert pressure on girl employees for sex. Refusal to succumb to such requests for often results in dismissal, which employers support with frivolous reasoning.
While pregnancy amongst young girls is on the rise, so is the associated burden this creates on society. In Nigeria, one of these burdens is an increase in the number of HIV cases; the society seems to be losing the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS. And there is the increased number of deaths as young girls seek to abort their pregnancies without appropriate medical care or services. The cost to society of these deaths is both unbearable and preventable.
Ultimately, most seem trapped in the cycle of poverty. Uneducated girls getting pregnant without a source of livelihood burdens the society as resources are diverted to other uses. It is against this background that I call on civil society groups, policy makers, and all others to join me in this campaign to fight and put an end to teenage pregnancy. Our collective responsibility remains to focus on empowering women and young girls to secure health issues, especially relating to sexuality, as a right.
We invite you to follow our @LetGirlsLead blog series, running from Monday, September 22nd to the International Day of the Girl on Saturday, October 11th on the Huffington Post. Each piece is an intimate window into the experiences of a girl leader and what she is doing to make the world a better place. Through the series, you can learn firsthand about the challenges facing girls globally and the amazing work girls are doing to create a better future.
Let Girls Lead is building a global movement of Champions who empower girls to attend school, stay healthy, escape poverty, and overcome violence. Let Girls Lead invests in girls and their allies to lead social change through advocacy, education, storytelling, economic empowerment, and strategic partnerships. Since 2009, Let Girls Lead's externally validated model has contributed to improved health, education, livelihoods, and rights for more than 3 million girls through laws, programs, and funding. Let Girls Lead's sister initiative, Champions for Change, leverages this proven model to save the lives of women, newborns, and children by empowering leaders and organizations to advocate for reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health in Nigeria.
Champions for Change and Let Girls Lead are headquartered at the Public Health Institute in Oakland, CA, a leader in global health and development for 50 years.