Forced Open-Air Pregnancy Tests At NYSC Camp
Upon our arrival at the Ipaja camp in Lagos , my friends and I were separated from all male registrants and shepherded to the back of the main registration building. Many of us were confused and had no idea what to expect. We were soon informed, through a megaphone, that we were to have forced pregnancy tests. After forming a line that stretched around the building, we girls tried to locate where the clinic where they would conduct the test was located. All we saw were two men and two women seated at a table and a nearby curtain rod. Two mattresses had been placed over the rod in a corner of the grassy patch behind the registration table. This makeshift ‘room’ with only one ‘wall’, was where we would be forced to undergo pregnancy tests.
When asked why we had to have pregnancy tests instead of proceeding with registration along with our male counterparts, we were told that it was to weed out the ‘liars’ amongst us. The NYSC officials present informed us that every year, they have girls who try to gain exemption from the camp experience by claiming they are pregnant. They stated that the girls usually claim not to be pregnant when registering during the first few days of the orientation camp, only to ‘spring’ a pregnancy up as an excuse once the strenuous exercises of the camp begins. As such, they had deemed it necessary to force all females to undergo pregnancy tests.
Though we tried to dispute the logic behind such reasoning, we were told to keep quiet. We were then instructed to move in batches of three behind the mattresses, to grab a plastic bottle from a carton box, to remove our trousers and skirts and urinate into three ‘holes’ dug into the ground. Behind the mattresses stood three women who inspected us as we urinated into the plastic bottles. Once we were able to produce urine, they would then stick a pregnancy test ‘stick’ into the bottle and hand the stick to us. We were then to take these sticks and present it to the people seated at the table next to the ‘testing area’. These people would then present us with a piece of paper declaring the results of our test. If you tested negative, you were allowed to proceed with registration. If you tested positive, you would be sent out of the camp.
While standing in line, the girls moved forward in groups of three. Any girl unable to urinate on demand, was immediately berated and humiliated and shoved out of the testing area to stand in a corner. We were not provided with any water or drinks and girls who had nothing in their stomachs had to stand for hours until their bodies produced urine. Those girls who had some money were told to buy water for themselves. Many girls, despite drinking up to four large bottles of water were still unable to urinate. This was no doubt due to the psychological pressure of being herded like cows and insulted with each attempt. Every time girls went behind the mattresses, the women would deride those of us who could not urinate in loud voices. “ARE YOU STUPID? They would ask. WHY CAN”T YOU URINATE? COME ON GET OUT IF YOU ARE NOT READY TO PISS! YOU WILL NOT REGISTER TODAY!”
The pressure to urinate, coupled with the threats coming from the women ‘supervisors’ led to some breakdowns. One friend, in sobs, called home. She had drunk water to the point of having a distended stomach, yet every time she saw the maggot filled hole where we were to urinate could not produce any urine. After four hours of standing in the sun, and ten attempts, she was finally able to produce a small amount.
The girls who were able to urinate easily, still faced difficulties. As quite a number of the pregnancy sticks were faulty and read in error, showing neither the tell-tale pink or blue colours. Some girls, after waiting for hours to produce urine, were told to return to the line to urinate again when their tests did not read clearly. Any girl who protested at was disqualified from registering that day.
Given our physical makeup, girls are not able to aim easily into plastic bottles. As a result of our inability to aim their urine, many girls urinated onto their arms, bodies and clothes by accident. The majority of girls had urine-drenched hands resulting from their attempts to force the urine into the bottles. Despite the fact that their hands and arms were covered with urine, the girls were not allowed to wash their hands. Instead they were forced to sign a register with their name, state of origin, telephone number and NYSC number as the urine dripped onto the registration book. Subsequent girls had to handle the same pen and book clumsily as they balanced their bottles of urine and pregnancy test sticks in their hand as the supervisors screamed that “ANY GIRL CAUGHT WASHING HER HANDS BEFORE SIGNING WOULD BE SENT OUT OF THE CAMP.”
In my frustration, I asked one of the supervisors if she had been forced to take such a test when she served in the NYSC. “Of course not”, she replied “But you girls of today are liars. We cannot trust you so we must force you.” I asked the official, “Why not just test the girls who claim they are pregnant?” Another girl suggested that the NYSC camp should simply assign a clinic within each state where the tests could be conducted under sterile and clean conditions. Each suggestion was met with insults, as we were asked if we knew better than the NYSC. They insisted that as we are all liars we should be treated as such.
Apparently, the NYSC was operating under a number of assumptions.
1) That all the girls present were sexually active
2) That all the girls present were willing to hide a pregnancy while serving
3) That any girl, if pregnant, would immediately seek an exemption from the service year
4) That any girl, if pregnant, no matter what stage in her pregnancy, would be unable to participate in the camp exercises.
While I understand that the NYSC may have been concerned that some pregnant girls could miscarry while in the orientation camp, this concern does not warrant their extreme actions. All the females in that camp were above university age. Many of the women there were married and had children of their own. At such an age, a woman is capable of determining for herself whether she is fit enough to attend a camp for three weeks. In a world where women athletes continue to participate in their profession, while pregnant, and a world where women soldiers, marry and bear children and still serve their country, is such action on the part of NYSC warranted? Furthermore, forcibly submitting all corpers to unhygienic and dehumanising tests does not achieve anything. The few girls who they discovered were pregnant, were already aware of their pregnancies. They had already determined and cleared with their doctors, that they were fit to attend the orientation camp.
Meanwhile, as we underwent the tests, our male counterparts, breezed through their registration process. No one stopped them to test if they had impregnated anyone recently. No one even tested them for STDs. Few of our male colleagues were even aware of the pregnancy tests and the sexual discrimination taking place despite the fact that the registration hall walls were transparent and the pregnancy tests were taking place right in front of the transparent walls.
All around the camp, NYSC had posted signs saying PREGNANT OR NURSING MOTHERS ARE FORBIDDEN FROM SERVING. I worry that while they force pregnancy tests on us this year, the next year they may force ‘nursing mothers’ tests on all serving female Corpers, asking us to strip down as they feel our breasts to see if they are producing milk.
As I underwent this test, I informed my fellow corpers that we should protest formally. Many of the girls insisted that no one would listen to us. Some of them stated, “This is Nigeria … nobody cares about us. As far as they are concerned, we are nothing but animals, because we finished university.” They advised that maybe the students who had gone to university abroad should lead the protest, “as the foreign students have all the privileges.” A number of people there were under the impression that we were being treated this way because “this is Nigeria .” Regardless, having hope that through dignified and respectful protest, and under the recommendation of the girls present, I took pictures of the conditions under which we underwent the test with my phone. I am ready to provide these pictures so that there can be no accusation of lack of evidence on the part of the NYSC.
The orientation exercise is stressful enough. The camp experience, all around the country, is difficult for anyone to survive. I have been told that in the old days, the NYSC experience was an enjoyable one and that women were not submitted to the shame of open-air pregnancy tests. This year however, there was only shame, frustration and anger. We were shamed that we had to bare our bottoms in the open air in front of strangers. We were shamed that people in the house behind the mattresses watched us bare our bodies to their amusement. We were shamed that the male ‘doctors’, who were corpers themselves, were the ones who handled our fate in their hands. We were frustrated that there was no one willing to listen to us, no one willing to allow us the mere decency of taking the tests in a covered area. We imagined that if the conditions surrounding the test were this bad in the Lagos camp, then what were our sisters in Kogi, Anambra, Kano, Enugu, undergoing? We were angry that we were ‘welcomed’ to the camp in this manner. We were angry that we were frequently verbally insulted as we took the tests and treated like infants and animals. Many corpers who had returned from abroad, with idealistic dreams of doing something positive for their were rudely awakened by their treatment, while students who had gone to universities in Nigeria renewed their vows to someday flee the country. Given this NYSC treatment, is it no wonder then that our youth continue to flee this country in swarms and droves? That so many Nigerians would rather die in the desert trying to cross to Europe or sell off everything for the chance to live abroad than to live and serve in a country that has no regard for them?
I beseech you now, on behalf of all corpers in this present batch and future batches, to do something about this test. The NYSC experience is clearly already difficult enough with its 4 am drills, lack of water, cramped sleeping conditions and blocked or non-existent toilets. While many fell ill within the first week from the deplorable sanitary conditions, this is a complaint that never changes. However, this pregnancy test is new. My mother’s generation did not do it and neither did the previous NYSC batches this decade. I refuse to accept that this is ‘how it must be’ because “This is Nigeria .” I believe in a Nigeria that is capable of rebranding itself. I believe in a Nigeria that can shed its negative image and be viewed in a positive light. I believe in a Nigeria where citizens and leaders can work hand in hand to overcome the challenges facing the nation.
I do not believe in a Nigeria where the youth have no voice. So now, I write this letter of protest, on behalf of my batch mates in Lagos and around the country asking that the NYSC should not force any more open-air pregnancy tests on its corpers. We ask that that NYSC listens to the feedback it is getting. We ask that the NYSC consults its past and present corpers in order to find a more viable and respectful solution to the issue of pregnant corpers who seek exemptions.
We insist that Nigeria is our country, and as people who willingly take part in the NYSC scheme, wanting to serve our country, that Nigeria grants us the ability to maintain our dignity and hold our head high as we wear its uniform. That, as we struggle to serve our country, our country serves us as well. I sign this letter, with the Utmost Regard and Sincerity.
Ms Ajao is a Batch C, 2009, female youth corps member currently serving in Lagos State .