While the right to health has been an internationally recognised human right, the specific health rights of women and girls in Nigeria continue to take a backseat. Women and girls need to have quality access to health care services protecting their sexual and reproductive health such as services for menstrual hygiene, safe pregnancy, sex education, childbirth, and so on, in order to maintain an acceptable standard of living.
Health Statistics in Nigeria: Girls and Women
Nigeria represents 2.4% of the world population but contributes to 10% of global deaths for pregnant women
Infant mortality rate: 576 per 100,000 births
Every day, 145 women die in Nigeria, most from preventable or treatable causes
Factors Influencing Healthcare for Girls and Women in Nigeria
There are many contributing factors to the devastating state of health care for young girls in Nigeria. These include:
Child Marriage: Due to early marriage, early motherhood becomes a common phenomenon as only 3% of the girls use contraception.1 Childbearing for these child- brides is risky as they are generally not physically capable for pregnancy or labour.2 In fact, Nigeria has the highest prevalence of obstetric fistula in the world, with between 400,000 and 800,000 women living with the problem and about 20,000 new cases each year, so this implies that about 55 women are afflicted by obstetric fistula every day.3 90% of these cases remain untreated.
Lack of Education: Poor education also leads to the lack of knowledge regarding safe sex and family planning. Unplanned pregnancies give rise to complications regarding childbirth and the overall health of the girls in these situations. Unsafe sex also increases the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
Lack of Hygiene and Sanitation: Poor hygiene and sanitary facilities also affect girls’ health negatively. Infections to the reproductive system can easily occur in environments which are unclean. Lack of clean water and good toilet facilities can lead to health issues such as cervical cancer, vaginal thrush, diarrhoea as well as facilitating the spread of numerous communicable diseases.
Rising Poverty Levels: Poverty is a major factor that enables the lack of adequate health care facilities in general. Period poverty, when a girl/woman cannot afford the requisite sanitary products, is a growing issue that increases the health problems girls in Nigeria face. Such girls would often resort to unhygienic practices.4 According to UNICEF, it has been estimated that due to period poverty, 1 in 10 African girls miss school during their periods5 so the effect of this also extends to girls’ education.
Deprioritization of Mental Health: Mental health care is another important aspect of healthcare for girls. The mental health service sector in Nigeria is grossly under- performing at large as the necessary importance is yet to be ascribed to it by society. Girls are even worse off in this case due to the numerous abuses they face daily, being a vulnerable group dealing the effects of gender discrimination every day. Sexual abuse and gender-based violence are common avenues through which the mental health of the girl child in Nigeria faces a drastic impact.6
Improving Healthcare for Girls and Women in Nigeria
To improve healthcare for all girls and women in Nigeria, the following measures could be implemented:
Increased Governmental Efforts: The government must make efforts to alleviate poverty which distorts the access to these basic needs, and they must make them available in all neighbourhoods in all communities in the country. Policies to close the gaps in women and girls’ healthcare in Nigeria must be also be established by the government.
Increased Focus on Girl-child Education: Education itself is a vaccine, which is capable of empowering girls to make independent choices in the future, including family planning7 while also empowering them to be financially independent, thus reducing poverty.
A noteworthy growth in the number of female health workers can only happen if girls are able to achieve a complete secondary education and take up training in Health Training institutions.
Supporting the Adoption of Girl/Woman Friendly Policies: The discriminatory laws and practices which still exist in Nigeria are an impediment to the full realisation of health and reproductive rights of girls and women in Nigeria. For example, the fact that the Child Rights Act is yet to be adopted by certain Northern states allows for the legalization of child marriage in those states. Therefore, State Assemblies must take the necessary measures to implement the Child Rights Act 2003, including concrete steps to execute the minimum age of marriage.8
It is pertinent that Nigeria focuses efforts on the health issues girls and women in Nigeria face, for the preservation and development of the society and the improvement of the standard of living for all. The struggles girls face in this country are too serious and too dire to be ignored any further. This point Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu reiterated at a public address in the United States in 2019 saying, “there must be a renewed commitment towards eliminating health impediments that can ruin the future of the girl-child and limit her productivity."9 Our society needs to work together to save the girl child form these threats to her wellbeing and life.