Sexual and Reproductive Rights Can Tackle Nigeria’s Population Boom
The population bulge that ushered Africa into the Millennia isn’t slowing, and many governments have lamented their inability to solve the challenges that come with it, including access to healthcare, employability, crime, illegal migration, civil unrest, etc. Nigeria’s government, for example, have not been shy about the issue, citing its growing population as a problem hindering economic development.
With a total fertility rate of 5.53 children – higher than the global 2.4 average; Nigeria’s population will reach the 200 million mark by 2020 based on current estimates. The numbers become more alarming when you consider a World Poverty Clock report which puts Nigeria as the country with the largest amount of people living in extreme poverty with 86.9 million, despite being Africa’s largest producer of crude.
Recent government’s pronouncements citing its growing population as a hindrance to economic development comes at a time when policies are failing to provide much needed social welfare like maternal and child health insurance, improved family planning, and sexual and reproductive health education [SRHE].
Cultural practices have long influenced population trends in Nigeria; like polygamy, with 16% of married men aged between sixteen and forty-five reported to have more than one wife. These age-long traditions of having large families for cheap agrarian labor, and for cultural clout mean that the growing population will continue to deepen the poverty trough and widen the inequality gap.
While it is no longer secret that economically disadvantaged people continue to birth more kids, research proves that they do so as insurance against neonatal and child deaths, and insurance for socio-economic security with girls often bearing the brunt more, when as children, they are married off to wealthy suitors. This culture of conservative patriarchy where boys are preferred to girls encourages mothers with girls to go on a birthing spree, in search of that boy which brings her glory and dignity in the eyes of the extended family.
This conservative culture doesn’t spare adolescents and young people either, as there is a deliberate denial of access to SRHE for traditional and religious purposes, leading to contraceptive use rates as low as 10.4%. The resultant social costs include teenage pregnancies, with 32% of unwanted pregnancies countrywide, leading to unplanned births.
Tackling these underlying problems require a bottom-up, multifaceted approach targeting grassroots communities where strategies align with age-long traditions and cultures to influence social behavioral change [SBC]; as they sit at the bottom of the pyramid. Thus, partnering with gatekeepers often provide a soft landing for influencing SBC. In Nigeria, cultural and religious leaders are these gatekeepers, and their social influence is often pivotal for policy advocacy amongst communities and the audiences in which they hold clout.
For example, the “Umu-Ada” group amongst the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria is very influential across communities, often spearheading conversations and instituting culture amongst the womenfolk. These gatekeepers can easily be partnered with, for SRHE especially relating to the adoption of family planning and contraceptives amongst young wives, lead advocacy against the discrimination of women, and in instituting economic interventions for women, like conditional microcredit programs for women who adopt contraceptive use, as was successful in Thailand. Incorporating men as sexual health and reproductive care workers to influence social behavioral change amongst the menfolk and elders in the communities is also an important factor to be considered.
Digital storytelling has more recently proven to be a great SBC influencing tool across the population pyramid than traditional methods as the use of social media increases. The well-acclaimed teleshow, ‘Shuga’ screened by MTV Staying Alive Foundation and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation amongst others, showed that six months after participants watched the show, they were twice as likely to get tested for HIV, and viewers were 14% less likely to have concurrent sex partners.
Sex education in schools allows young people learn about sex as a healthy and positive act, and is crucial in combating teenage pregnancy. At LoloTalks, our sex-ed program “My body is Mine” engages secondary school students in open forums where issues of consent, gender stereotypes, and the impact of social inequality in relationships are discussed. This ability to discuss allows adolescents to speak-up about the causes of transactional sex and abusive relationships while debunking dangerous myths and misconceptions on sex.
Increasing contraceptive use by youths cannot be achieved if they are ashamed and fearful of healthcare workers’ attitudes, judgmental remarks and refusal to provide needed SRH services except young people are accompanied by parents or husbands. Youth-friendly clinics are thus, important for reaching demography that is mostly in dire need of the services.
Nigeria is unlikely to beat poverty without tackling overpopulation by reducing her fertility rate through a collective partnership with relevant stakeholders. Thailand, Malawi, and Rwanda have proven that it is possible, and Nigeria must not be left behind.