On the stigma around sex education and a woman’s right to choose

Reproductive health and other matters arising we need to talk about

Written by Tomiwa Isiaka and Maryam Bello

It is troubling that women have little right to anything at all, even our bodies.

Basic human right should include the right to control and decide on all matters related to sexuality and reproductive health, without discrimination or violence. But women have been stimagtised, petitioned and discriminated against for reasons ranging openness with sexuality, seeking sexual education and social norms surrounding contraception. 

In this part of the world, sexual education is often swept under the category of taboo topics when in reality it equips women with the knowledge to make decisions that would satisfy their personal desires while ensuring maximum protection. What should be first contact for self awareness and positive reinforcement of their sensuality is replaced with the gospel of abstinence, where adolescent boys and girls are under-propped with a combination of biologically inaccurate religious and cultural ideals. This not only increases the number of unwanted pregnancies, it also increases the chances of contracting STI’s and exposes both boys and girls to sexual harassment as they are ill-equipped to recognize sexual assault. In the area of unwanted pregnancies, reports show that Nigeria’s birth rate for adolescents is one of the highest in the world, and this is due to the lack of adequate materials needed to practice safe sex, including education.

When the lack of adequate education and material leads to pregnancy for sexually active youths, the stigma and shame against pregnancies outside marriage and abortions affects their willingness to seek the help and advice that they need. In the case of abortion stigma, the experience of shame is due to the pseudo-cultural and religious values society has loured around the concept. The societal traditions have lead us to believe that abortions violate the “feminine ideals”, meaning the duty of a woman is to give birth, so terminating for whatever reason somehow diminishes the value of womanhood.

One of the primary risks women have to take with abortions in Nigeria is hemorrhaging to death and long-term impacts on fertility. The fears are grounded. Itunu Aderonmu, a 26-year-old skincare expert we met, had three abortions with herbal concoctions at the insistence of her boyfriend, but when he decided he was ready to have a family she miscarried twice and he left her. And like many women in her predicament, she now attends church services and begs God to forgive her for her sins.

When a group is underrepresented anywhere in the world, smaller minority groups in the spread are often set aside simply by slight differences in context. To illustrate, among people who support access to abortions, some believe they are only acceptable in certain conditions (like medical requirements), people who do not fall within these conditions may feel additional stigma within the groups that are believed to support them. This overflow of judgment, coupled with the legal restrictions reinforcing the perception that it is morally wrong, forces pregnant people seeking contraceptives and abortions to find solace in bootleg and often dangerous alternatives.

Mercy had consulted a doctor outside the university clinic when she suspected she was pregnant. In her words, “When he confirmed it, he told me ‘ you are pregnant, seeing how young you are, don’t tell me you want to keep it. We will help you remove it here for 10k (ten thousand naira)”. It only took a few days before the sepsis, a leading cause of death from abortions, set in and Mercy had to find professional help.

With limited access to contraception, an unprecedented number of women in Nigeria have to resort to illegal abortions while the rest merely contribute to Nigeria’s skyrocketing population. Despite religious and cultural taboos making abortion a whispered word, providers from across the healthcare spectrum regularly perform abortions on the low. Unfortunately, the safety and efficacy range widely, with vulnerable women in poorer demographics facing the most dangerous procedures. 

For Blessing, she had her abortion at 19 successfully. But she’s 24 now and the stigma from her religious family after the pregnancy and abortion outside wedlock has forced her out on her own to fend for herself. Her procedure took place in a hospital with a qualified doctor, a lucky thing with so many quacks around. As much as she kept her abortion hush-hush, word eventually got out and it was only a matter of time before her family and the church ostracized her and shamed her till she ended up on the streets with no skills to live off. She told us; “My house was hell at that point, They didn’t ask me to go but from the way they taunted and looked at me they didn’t want me there.” 

So deeply ingrained is the fear of stigmatization and ostracisation that most of these women would only let us use a middle name. It should be clear that these laws and restrictions on abortion do not make any sense legally or public health wise.

Abortions are safer when it is available on the woman’s request and universally affordable and accessible. While taking prevailing conditions in the country into account, it’s important to note that, at this point in human civilization, a criminal law on abortion is unnecessary. Treating abortion as essential health care is a major step forward. Abortions should available at the request of the only person who counts—the one who is pregnant.

Canada has proved that no criminal law on abortion is feasible and acceptable. In Sweden, abortions after 18 weeks can be effectively terminated with very good services, and WHO has shown that first-trimester abortions can be provided safely and effectively at the primary and community level. Though decriminalization will be a massive driving force towards destigmatization of abortions, education and aid to women who seek reproductive health care is the ultimate force. Education will not only reduce the risks of STI’s and reduce unwanted teenage pregnancies, a more mainstream  approach towards creating public awareness for all the positives of sexual and reproductive health issues will remove the constraints tied to women  and their sexuality.