How Lagos youth friendly initiative is improving lives of young Nigerians
One of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDG 3) is that people of all ages live healthy lives; and a reduction in the adolescent birth rate is seen as one measure of progress on this. However, teenage pregnancy, rising number of out-of-school children, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancies, and dangerously carried out abortions remain major problems in Lagos; especially in Alimosho, the biggest Local Government Area (LGA) in the state, preventing the realisation of this very important goal.
Recent statistics show that girls’ sexual and reproductive health are under severe threat, and many girls, especially, in hard-to-reach areas are at risk of contracting lifelong diseases, dropping out of school, harming their reproductive health permanently and even their lives due to unsafe sexual practices, dangerous pregnancies and risky abortions.
For years, desperation, wrong information and poverty have forced many young girls to endanger their health and their lives and with no one to turn or talk to, these problems have persisted for years. Because of Alimosho’s size, it has a higher number of young girls and the number of teenage pregnancies is the highest in the state; as well as STIs and youth truancy. Riddled with very poor areas with poor mindsets, it is not uncommon to see 12 or 13 year olds struggling with a baby or babies, out of school or having had an abortion.
In a bid to tackle these many problems, provide a safe space for young people and try to get them back into school, a youth friendly centre, popularly known as Hello Lagos!, was established to exclusively cater for them and was located in the local government office.
However, no sooner did the centre take off that stories started spreading rapidly around the community that it was teaching young people about having sex, pairing young ones with one other and charging users heavily for drugs/hospital visits. Parents began to warn their children and youths to stay away from the place. The centre’s coordinator, Damilola Koya said it was an uphill battle in the beginning as besides trying to do his job, he was fighting strongly held cultural and societal beliefs, rumour-mongering, fear, misinformation and disinformation, zero support and a very lean budget.
Koya said they try to address issues around sexual reproductive health, substance abuse, issues around young people’s socio-cultural lifestyle, academics and even recreation. The essence he said, is to bring back a totally sane individual who can function effectively regardless of whatever situation they were before or find themselves in. In 2021, he set up the young mums club to focus exclusively on pregnant teens and girls out of school. “We focus on 10-24 year olds for the youth friendly centre but for the young mums clinic, our focus age bracket is between 12-19 years. We decided to start with 12 years because we noticed the prevalence of teen pregnancies, STIs and saw that girls within that age bracket are mostly affected and have no help.
“We discovered that most of them are being misinformed, lack parental care and tend to take bad advice from the Internet, some school teachers and peer pressure. “We let them know this place is a one-stop shop where they can access reproductive health services and information, acquire life skills and develop competencies. We want them to not just better their lives but also become peer educators to others. This place is open for them to read after school, hold extra mural classes, prepare for JAMB and help those that want to go back to school, re-integrate seamlessly.”
Koya said the girls have access to free drugs because they realized that they went to quacks for reproductive healthcare because they erroneously believed them to be cheaper until they get here and realize they can get free drugs and almost free access to doctors and specialists. He added that their working relationship is mostly with government hospitals (such as Alimosho, Orile-Agege, Isolo amongst others) and the health workers in these hospitals create time to attend to the young mothers, making it easier to get qualitative care regarding sexual and reproductive health.
He added that they understand that each girl that comes into the clinic or club has the potential to influence others when they go out and interact with their friends, as word of mouth remains a very effective means of reaching others, especially other girls in harder-to-reach communities.
“We also try to target places where young people gather, especially in areas we have assessed that information is limited or misinformation is rife. Outreaches are determined or motivated by young people we speak to. When we come in contact with them or they come into the centre. We ask them where they live and if out of 10 cases, five are from a particular area, we usually go there to hold intervention programmes.
Sometimes, when we get there, the situation might be different from what we were told or even worse, so we ensure proper assessment is done before we intervene. If we don’t do anything now, the rate of teenage pregnancies will rise, crimes will increase, chaos will ensue and more youths will be affected. Misinformation is rife among young people that mostly goes unchecked and gets passed on from generation to generation.”
While poor funding remains a major issue, cultural practices and beliefs remain their biggest challenge, he divulged. Many people, even very educated ones still believe it is a taboo to talk about anything related to sex with young people, claiming it would make them promiscuous. Misinformation on the Internet is very rife too as many young people prefer to turn to the Internet for information and education.
Communal acceptance is also a problem and the centre is fighting a raging battle with age-long-held beliefs and mistruths. Poor awareness is also an issue, as many people; even those around this axis talk less of the rest of Lagos, have no idea it exists. Koya says when they go for sensitization programmes and awareness drives, people doubt them, saying they have never heard of us.
“Despite the several limitations we face, some young people come all the way from Ojo, Badagry, Isolo, Ijedodo and Ijegun, FESTAC, Mile 2, Amuwo-Odofin and so on and when we ask them how they heard of the centre, they respond that they saw us online so there is still hope. We need more awareness so that more young people can access us but we need even more awareness amongst health workers. Some health workers even within this axis have no idea we exist and so, cannot direct those in need to us but we still try to reach out to all health facilities around here and beyond.”
Koya says they have several success stories as a young mum that passed through the centre was last year, made an ambassador for the Youth Empowered Ecosystem for Adolescent Health (YPE4AH), a USAID funded project, which seeks to improve the health and well-being of underprivileged, out-of-school and unmarried girls between the ages of 15–19 in Lagos.
“Two of our young people are now naval officers and still come back to the centre to talk to young people. We have three nurses now; one is with Alimosho General Hospital while the other two are in private hospitals. We have a couple of others working in I.T and tech and we ensure they come back to speak to the ones here so they can see that they can make a success of their lives. However, something that gives me joy is our out-of-school youths that are now back in school.
The young mums clinic, which started about a year ago, has recorded a 20 per cent decline in teen pregnancy and a 15 per cent return to school, of young mums. A couple of them that didn’t go back to school learned life skills and can now stand on their two feet. Some of them said they want to read medicine and we enrolled them at LASU and a school in Ogun state. We follow up on them often to ensure they remain on track.”
Speaking with one of the mothers of a ‘young mum’, Barakat Adesina, she revealed that she had to leave her marriage and found herself and her daughter in a difficult position when they couldn’t make ends meet. Now hawking Amala around Alimosho, she said: “Shortly after we got here was when she (her daughter) told me she was pregnant. We tried to ‘remove’ it but after trying three times with herbs and alcohol, the baby was still there and we decided to leave it after she almost died after the last try.
It was around this period that someone told us about this club but I didn’t want her to go there because I was told that they teach girls to be promiscuous and going there would prevent girls from getting married but as I later found out, those stories were not true. The club and centre has been a lifesaver for many young girls like my daughter, I see them here every day, some are learning handwork, others are learning things on the computer,” she said.
Engaging with a senior reproductive health worker at the Alimosho health centre, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, she revealed that the presence of the centre and subsequent birth of the club has assisted in no small way, in the reduction of STI cases that present at the hospital weekly.
“Also, it has helped reduce the number of teenage pregnancies in this axis by 24% as at this month. This may sound small but it is a big deal for us and we know this figure will very likely improve by the end of this year. Also, the number of botched abortions that present to us has reduced by 18% and we know this will improve as more people that access the club get the right information and necessary help,” she said.
While the youth centre and young mums club is significantly helping address the hydra-headed problem of teenage pregnancy, STI, young girls being out of school, unsafe pregnancies and abortions as well as teen truancy, giving young people an opportunity to build or re-build their lives and pick up a life skill, the number of youths and girls still battling with these problems is still on the high side. A visit to some select government-owned schools by The Guardian revealed that young girls are still practicing unsafe sexual activities, STIs and teenage pregnancy is still a major problem while many youths are very much involved in truancy and nefarious online activities.
Koya said while reaching more young people is very much in their plans; they are currently heavily hindered by funds, willing volunteers, materials and a safe space for the youths to be in. Even though nobody that comes in through the doors can be turned away, not everyone can be attended to because of the above-mentioned reasons.
However, young girls, especially in the harder-to-reach areas have been able to act as word-of-mouth disciples, preaching the message of safe sexual practices, better reproductive health and other related issues. However, there is still need for better funding and resources for the centre and club, improved awareness and a total mindset change amongst the community members so that more young girls and boys can benefit and get the necessary help they need.
Koya added that they intend to bring in more young people this year with a mega outreach and a youth-friendly week that will be marked with activities like free medical check-up and games.
“We also realise that that there are some students that struggle academically but are gifted in other areas like art and crafts and so we want to uplift this area they are gifted in. We intend to hold an art week where these students’ artworks, handworks and paintings would be sold to art lovers with the proceeds going to them so as to encourage them, further their education and give them a sense of belonging,” he said.
*This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting.