On any number of health indicators, girls suffer disproportionately. “For every one boy in the age bracket of 10 to 24 who is HIV positive, there are three girls who are HIV positive,” Esiet said. “Over 60 percent of cases of complications from unsafe abortion reported in Nigerian hospitals are amongst adolescent girls. In fact in literature, 10-15 years ago, this was described as ‘a schoolgirl’s problem’…and it’s still an ongoing problem.” She added: “And for girls too, the issue of sexual violence is huge. It goes largely unreported but it’s occurring at epidemic levels.”
Esiet spoke on an adolescent health panel during the April 25 “Nigeria Beyond the Headlines” event at the Wilson Center. Progress is slow on these issues, in large part because “there’s a whole lot of silence about acknowledging young people’s sexuality,” she said.
Adults “want to believe [adolescents] shouldn’t be sexually active.” But turning a blind eye to adolescent sexuality can mean that efforts “to provide access to education or services is hugely resisted by practitioners who should be doing this.”
Action Health works to fill the gap that emerges. “Our work covers advocacy, community outreach, and service provision for young people,” said Esiet.
“Our primary entry road in to work with young people is creating access to sexuality education and youth friendly services. And in the course of trying to do that, we have to do a whole lot of advocacy with government and also with ministries or education and ministries of health and youth development.”
The group has worked with government officials and agencies to establish a nationwide HIV education curriculum and paired with local healthcare providers to increase access to “youth-friendly” sexual and reproductive health services. Funding shortages and insufficient resources have hampered the curriculum’s success, though, and the pervasive attitude against youth sexuality has limited the reach of services, she said. Ultimately, “there are a whole range of issues that truly need to be addressed” for outreach efforts to be successful.