Editor’s note: This is the seventh post in our blog series Local Brilliance: Women leading global health innovation, featuring firsthand accounts from scientists and leaders who are saving lives and improving health for women and girls in their countries and communities.
That’s what my aunty, now in her midthirties and a struggling single mother of four, told me about her ordeal as a teenage mother. Her father (who cherished her) was highly disappointed and her mother beat her severely. But none of these actions would undo her pregnancy. Her father insisted abortion was not an option, so she had the baby.
That was 23 years ago. And yet today, millions of girls and young women find themselves in similar situations—deprived of accurate and comprehensive information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights—and many girls drop out of school or get derailed from achieving their dreams. They suffer poor health outcomes, or worse, mortality due to a “culture of silence,” which denies the fact that young adults need to be educated on their sexuality and the consequences of their relationships. I became aware of this reality during my first trip back to Nigeria, my birth country, following eight years of living and studying in the United States.
Taboos around the world
As a 21-year-old US college student and a budding adolescent health scholar, I volunteered with Action Health Incorporated, an organization dedicated to advancing the health and development of Nigeria’s youth. During my first week, I sat in a training for nursing students on youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health care. The facilitator asked participants, “How can we help adolescents cope with the sexual and reproductive health challenges they face when our ‘cultures’ consider it a taboo to talk to young people about sex and their sexuality?”
I watched quietly as the nurses reflected on the question, sensing their uneasiness with the subject matter. Their discomfort grew and they began giggling when asked to demonstrate “how to put on a condom.” These were adults in their early-to-late 30s, and some were in their 40s and 50s. I was stunned by the fact that these adults were very uncomfortable engaging with issues of human biology and sexuality—core aspects of their professional field of nursing.
“Don’t allow any man to touch you.”
I spent my teenage and early adult years in Atlanta, Georgia, so I know the challenges that young people around the world—particularly girls—face in accessing comprehensive sexuality education. It’s a global challenge. One of the reasons young girls find themselves pregnant before they are physically, emotionally, and financially ready to be mothers is because it’s considered taboo for girls to talk and/or ask about sex. Personally, the only sexuality education I received came from a female adult family friend who simply told me, “Don’t allow any man to touch you.” What she meant by “touch” remained ambiguous and my teenage self just said “OK” in agreement.
Statistics reveal that 1.8 million adolescents aged 10 to 19 are living with HIV and make up 12 percent of new HIV infections. We need to give our youth the information and resources to make smart and safe sexual reproductive health decisions. Gaps continue to exist for adolescents, many of whom don’t know what the health risks are or where to find health services. This breaks my heart because lives are being compromised. Adolescent girls and young women remain disproportionately affected by HIV and constitute more than half of those infected.
Giving voice takes listening
While in graduate school, I recognized my deep passion for empowering girls and women. I learned about the huge disparities and marginalization they suffer globally. I also realized—through personal encounters—the critical role that empowerment plays in young people’s decisions.
During a 2012 trip to Kenya, I met 10 orphaned adolescent girls and listened as they shared the daily challenges they faced in their schools and communities. Not only did the girls struggle with self-esteem, one had just learned she was pregnant. When I asked them to name a female role model, the girls excitedly yelled out “Michelle Obama” and “Oprah Winfrey.” However, when I asked them who they admired in Kenya, only one girl mentioned her cousin in university. This is the harsh reality of girls’ lives and their vulnerabilities, particularly in developing countries. Since then, I’ve explored interventions to empower girls, focusing my career on improving adolescent and women’s health.
We all have a voice
In 2014, in the midst of the Ebola crisis, I left my job as a program assistant at PATH to return to my childhood home in Nigeria. I joined an organization providing comprehensive sexuality education and resources to students in secondary schools in Lagos State. It was fulfilling work and I learned about issues impacting girls’ healthy development, including child- and forced-marriage and lack of education. Soon after, I launched the nonprofit Strong Enough Girls’ Empowerment Initiative. We’re a women-led organization passionate about helping girls and women embrace the power of their voices, ensuring that girls have access to high-quality education, and advocating for opportunities that allow girls and women to make progressive and sustainable contributions to society.
Now, as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, I study these issues through community visits and conversations in Nigeria and the Republic of Niger. My bicultural and cross-continental background, in addition to my education, help bridge the gaps in global awareness of cultures and people to advance health outcomes for women and girls. We all have a voice. We just need to be supported to find and use our powerful voices. When we do, fewer girls will say, “I didn’t know I could get pregnant.”
Listen to Onyinye Edeh talk about the strength of girls when they tap into their “powerful voices.” Empowered girls are more likely to stay in school, avoid unplanned pregnancies, have improved health, and benefit their communities.
- Onyinye Edeh is the founder of Strong Enough Girls in Nigeria.