By Dr. Zipporah Kpamor
It isn’t easy being a woman–or a girl–in Nigeria.
I grew up in a little village in the North where the tradition was very patriarchal. But my family was quite revolutionary. My father, right from the beginning, supported all of his children to go to school. When he got ill, he told my mother: ‘You must promise me this: If I’m not around, and you are forced to choose between who to send to school, always choose the girl. The boy will inherit the land; he will always have a livelihood. The girl, she is not allowed to inherit anything; the girl child needs an education to find a livelihood for herself. ’
It’s the opposite of what everyone thought! This is how I learned to lead.
The Girl Child in Nigeria
For many girls and adolescents in my country, poverty, patriarchal traditions, or threats of terror limit their access to health information and care, as well as to support systems, education, and economic security. I’ve shared previously some of the horrors the girls and families in northeast Nigeria face from Boko Haram: Boko Haram stole our girls, raided our villages, and killed and drove our health care workers away. Whenever there is civil disturbance, it is the women and children who suffer the most. They are the most vulnerable. As a result, women and children cannot access essential care, and Nigeria suffers some of the worst maternal and child health indicators in the world.
In the last year, however, the Nigerian government has made amazing strides at returning order and calm. The rates at which the bombs are going off, and the raids in villages, have decreased and quieted down. There are still some suicide attacks–where a girl is forced to wear a bomb and detonate it in a public market. And we still haven’t found the 200 Chibok girls. But, in the northeast, some schools and health care facilities have reopened, allowing children to return and health personnel to provide care. Displaced people are slowly coming back.
Adolescent Girls as Health Change Agents in the Amdo Health Club
MSH worked with local partners to lead a pilot intervention with 30 adolescent girls, ages 13 to 19, at Government Day Secondary School, Tal in Billiri, Gombe State–one of the terrorized states in northeast Nigeria—for six months from 2014 to 2015. This program, known as the Amdo Health Club had a far reaching impact on the girls. “Amdo” means love in the local dialect. For many, the Amdo Health Club not only changed their lives but also the lives of their sisters, friends, households, and communities.
At first, many of the girls were quite ignorant about their sexual and reproductive health. For example, many girls didn’t know about menstruation or that you can become pregnant during the first time of sexual intercourse. We not only gave them information, we built a support system where the girls could receive services.
We trained their teachers and collaborated with the Parents Teachers’ Association and school principal—so the girls would not have to go far and to increase trust with parents and the community. We arranged places the girls could get support, including through community based organizations, such as Community Oriented Health Providers Association, a collaborating civil society organization, and local government agencies.
Health workers in the facilities were also pulled in to provide guidance so that the girls were able to make informed decisions without feeling guilty. Sometimes, religious leaders and teachers acted as advocates regarding religion and how it affects sexual and reproductive health, helping demystify misunderstandings, myths, and rumors in such a way that there is no contradiction or conflict, and making it easier for girls and families to accept and adapt.