In the last fifteen years, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Nigeria has busied itself with the propagation of family planning and the promotion of sexual and reproductive health in Nigeria. These activities have yielded measurable results, but at a slow and laborious pace.
Nigeria still constitutes 14% of the global maternal deaths, while the understanding and application of family planning at the grassroot remains worryingly slow. Nigeria’s population has continued to grow at 2.6% annually, and by recent estimates, the country would become the third largest by 2050. A population of this size, riddled with dependents and young people largely bereft of economic opportunities is a recipe for instability.
At the UNFPA’s 5th Annual National Family Planning Stakeholders Consultative Meeting held in Abuja between 11 and 13 September 2017, one of the recurring theme was: how do we become more convincing with the Family Planning message? How do we make more people understand the urgency of curbing maternal deaths or the use of contraceptives to forestall unplanned pregnancies? How do we make people appreciate more the peculiarities of the Nigerian problem, and the troubles it may encounter with a youth bulge that doesn’t exists side by side with economic opportunities?
Perspectives matter. Language and the narrative of activism even more so. They sometimes determine if people take to a message, or discard it, and whether on receiving that message, they challenge or accept it. The slow response to Family Planning in are attributable to socio-cultural and religious factors, including myths and biases that are prevalent within families and communities in Nigeria. In the north for example, the term “Family Planning” tends to be construed often as a western concept that seeks to impose an alien lifestyle on families, one that is at odds with their socio-cultural and religious beliefs.
This concern was addressed by the Emir of Shonga (Alhaji Haliru Yahaya) at the Consultative Meeting, where he stressed on the need to deploy a different kind of language, in order to have a more impactful kind of dialogue with the grassroot or educationally disadvantaged groups in general.
In his short but incisive speech, the Emir of Shonga stressed on the need to perhaps move from the “family planning” terminology to a more relatable term which was “Child Birth Spacing”, as we must remain sensitive to the sensibilities of the grassroot whom these messages are intended for.
It was important to delicately and resolutely engage religious clerics who engage the grassroot in the mosques, because they were undoubtedly closer to the people. In this way, the narrative of family planning can move from the idea that it is western concept being foisted on the population, but rather, an important element in assisting families. Islam, after all, as the Emir noted, encouraged sympathy and tenderness for one’s wife. Such narratives make it easier for husbands to see the benefits of child spacing for their wives, and how they too can become income earners who are capable of contributing financially to their child’s education or healthcare.
Indeed, it was important to recognise the power religious and traditional leaders wielded, given their closeness to the grassroot and engage them on the benefits of child spacing. In effect, allowing they too to understand there are no contradictions between family planning and the religious beliefs of people.
If one thought, the reformation of the family planning narrative was only something applicable to Muslims or northerners, they would be highly mistaken. Three years ago, I remember being pestered by two of my Aunts, who assumed I was old enough to get married and start having children. In their estimation, my having a full-time job was enough for them to conclude I was ready to take on such responsibility. Neither of them was concerned whether my take home pay actually took me home.
Predictably, my excuse at the time that I lacked the financial stability to fend for a child did not seem to matter to them. For both women, I must appreciate that “I was not getting any younger,” and “time was going,” and “God would provide for the children not me.” Rationalisations or remarks such as these, despite their ridiculousness are not very uncommon. The truth remained that, God did not provide for children, their parents do, and a great deal of many who felt that time was running out on them, hence their mad rush to have children, now have family members catering for those children, and not God.
In effect, among parents within the different religious faiths, there seem a lack of practical understanding of the implications of having more children than their resources can sustain. It may be important to recall here that an estimated 30% of maternal deaths can be averted by improving access to contraceptives and increasing uptake of family planning services.
Also at the event proceedings, the Ooni of Ife (His Imperial Majesty Ooni Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi) found an evocating way to touch on a subject of maternal health in a way that resonated immensely among the audience. He began by asking the question: “If a plane crash that kills hundreds of people was to occur, would it not be declared a national catastrophe? Would urgent and emergency actions not be taken in the aviation sector to ensure there was no repeat of such occurrence? “How come”, he continued “we do not see maternal deaths, which also number in their hundreds as a similar national disaster?” The Ooni was right, in noting that if we can change our perspectives in understanding or reconceptualising the severity of a problem, we may be able to respond with more urgency towards it. Nigerian therefore needed to treat the problem of maternal health and sexual/reproductive health as if it were a plane crash.
There is an urgent need to start seeing maternal deaths as natural disaster, much like people dying in a plane crash. Plane crash forces government authorities to seek robust and urgent solutions. If we considered Family Planning and sexual and reproductive health as an issue deserving of urgent government action which include but not restricted to scaling up funding in the health sector, and working systemically with NGOs and civil society groups.
In the final analysis, it was important that citizens in general understand that Family Planning/Child Birth Spacing was no longer a task that should exclusively left to IGOs or NGOs or civil society groups, but a message whose propagation must be considered a civic duty of ever well-meaning citizens.
It is a message everyone must take home to their neighbours. And to tell it wherever the opportunity warranted. A change in perspective, a change in the dialogue and the language used is as important as the financial investments that are needed to overturn the negative spiral of maternal deaths. Men and Husbands must be made to understand that Family Planning/Child Birth Spacing is not something that concern women only, but something they have a role to play. For the time being, UNFPA Nigeria seems to be creating the right conditions for understanding how the Family Planning/Child Birth Spacing concept can be best understood and promoted.
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