I feel concerned about children who are denied basic life provisions like shelter, food, healthcare and education—especially when they are born to an adolescent, who doesn’t know how to help them” 

—Jennifer Amadi, African Youth Initiative on Population, Health and Development (AfrYPoD).

 

Young women in Nigeria are caught between tradition and a shifting cultural landscape, brought about by urbanization, globalized economies, and a media-saturated environment.  Many young women are unprepared to face the challenges that accompany limited access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, some of which include forced child birth, banishment from the community, infection, and even death.

One of the central human rights issues of the 21st century is the provision of universal access to reproductive healthcare services, including access to contraceptives as well as safe and legal abortion.  Whilst family planning services are vital for sexually-active people of all genders to prevent unwanted pregnancy and the transfer of sexually transmitted infections, only 27 percent of single, sexually active teen women in Nigeria report using some form of modern contraception.

Every year, 456,000 unsafe abortions are performed in Nigeria.  This is an alarming figure that should not be taken lightly.  The Sustainable Development Goals, adopted during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, are an intergovernmental set of 17 aspirational goals, within which target 3.7 specifies the need for universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services such as family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programs, by 2030.

Access to safe and legal abortion has been recognized by the global community as an essential intervention in a package of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health.  Sustainable Development Goal Three, if adequately implemented, offers opportunity for young women and girls to have access to substantive, comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare services. In such a framework, it’s possible to begin subsidizing contraceptive supplies and increasing access to safe and legal abortion care, with the ultimate aspiration of ensuring family planning education and services are so pervasive, abortion becomes less and less of a need, as unwanted pregnancy can be ameliorated in preventative terms.

As the world contends with an ever-increasing global population and limited jobs for citizens especially in developing and low income countries, it becomes very critical to address sexual and reproductive health needs.  When all people have access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, society as a whole is the winner – individuals are empowered to make informed decisions about when to have children, and communities thrive.  The benefit of investing in youth-friendly sexual and reproductive healthcare services are far-reaching, and can have positive ripple effects through to the future.  Young people may not constitute 100 percent of our current population, but they are 100 percent of our country’s future population.  As such, we must make provisions to ensure that countries in Africa are able to harness the demographic dividend offered by their youths by providing adequate access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services.

Nwamaka Olise, a young Nigerian woman, had her first child at the age of 15 because she was unable to access reproductive healthcare.  Over the course of our interview, she slowly revealed me her story in tears, recounting how, when she discovered she was four weeks pregnant, she sought reproductive healthcare but was unable to access it.  She felt that she was seen as someone who had committed an atrocity and should therefore be forced to suffer a lifelong punishment in the form of a child she might or might not have the capacity to care for.  The great misfortunate of the situation was that the people who expressed the most venom towards her were the ones who seemed to have the least empathy or concern for the unborn child.

Today, at 19 years old, Nwamaka has had four children for whom she struggles to provide shelter, food, clothing, and education.

“I wish I wasn’t denied access to reproductive healthcare services when I sought for them,” she said.  “Perhaps my life would have been a lot better and colorful, too.”

Nwamaka, like many young women who are unmarried when they become pregnant, has faced discrimination, stigma, and other traumatic experiences in Africa.  And when pregnant young women are unable to access reproductive healthcare services, they may turn to unsafe abortions, which carry a high rate of maternal morbidity and mortality.

Ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services for everyone, regardless of age, would help young people lead healthy sexual and reproductive lives and to plan their families as they wish.

Recently, I came in contact with a young girl in her 20s who had two children and was pregnant with her third.  For the first time in my life, I saw a mother who resented her children, like they were some kind of burdenThe physical abuse those kids suffered at the hands of their mother was heartbreaking to witness.  A colleague of mine, who was largely inured to the misfortunes encountered in the frontlines, was so distressed by what she saw that she almost lashed out at the mother because of the away those innocent children - whom hadn’t even been given food that day – were being treated.  The situation was more complex than good versus evil, though it sometimes felt that way.  A woman with no emotional, financial, or mental health support who struggled to provide for a family she may never have wanted can easily find herself overwhelmed and emotionally thin-skinned beneath the pressure.  When the weary young mother learned about the beauty of family planning, she wished she’d had that information earlier in life – not only for herself, but for the children she was failing to support and love the way they deserved.

Young women’s reproductive health and rights matter.  Family planning resources give an individual the opportunity to improve their status and opportunities in life, whilst investing in oneself through formal or informal education.  Ensuring access to family planning is a vital step towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal Three, and its pursuit of universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services.  It is time for governments across Africa, and the world, to match their political promises with actions, and deliver vital healthcare services to all citizens, irrespective of age, gender, and socioeconomic status.  

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