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[afro-nets] Sexual and Reproductive Rights: Which way Nigeria?

SEXUAL AND REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS: Which way Nigeria?
 
Despite the progress that has been made at the international arena since the 
1990s with regard to sexual and reproductive rights, the realisation of these 
rights has remained a great challenge in many developing countries. Over the 
years the health needs of women, particularly young women, women living with 
HIV/AIDS, Widows and persons with disabilities have continued to be ignored or 
treated with levity in many African countries including Nigeria. The result of 
this includes incessant loss of health in young women due to high prevalence of 
sexually transmitted infections (STIs), poor access to contraception, 
unacceptable, but preventable, loss of lives due to pregnancy complications, 
violence and physical abuse and high HIV/AIDS prevalence. All these are not 
only debilitating for women and other marginalised groups but also the society 
at large. Nigeria, with about 1, 000 deaths per 100,000 live births, is said to 
have one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Poor and 
inadequate comprehensive health care services especially for women and 
marginalised groups coupled with high prevalent rate of early/child marriage 
has further compounded the problem. In some parts of the country, especially 
the northern part, child marriage is very rampant. The corollary of this is 
early pregnancy and its associated complications including death or permanent 
morbidity. Young women in the ages of 15 years and above now constitute more 
than half of the people living with HIV in Nigeria. Negative cultural practices 
such as female genital mutilation/cutting and religious beliefs that oppose 
contraceptive use and early marriage among adolescents including poor attitude 
of some health workers which also contribute to some pregnant women delivery 
outside health facilities continue to pose great threats to women��s health. 
Ensuring access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services 
for women, especially young women, can prevent some of these reproductive 
health challenges

It should be noted that Nigeria has ratified numerous international and 
regional human rights instruments such as the Covenant on Economic Social and 
Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on Elimination of All forms of 
Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the African Charter on Human and 
Peoples�� Rights (African Charter) and the Protocol to the African Charter on 
the Rights of Women, (African Women��s Protocol) guaranteeing the right to 
health including sexual and reproductive health. In addition, the country has 
endorsed consensus statements reached at important conferences such as the 
International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo 1994 and the 
Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995 including their follow-up 
meetings relating to reproductive health care. Yet little attention is paid to 
the sexual and reproductive health of the people in the country. These human 
rights instruments and consensus statements impose legal and moral obligations 
on the government of Nigeria to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health 
-including sexual and reproductive health- of its people. This requires the 
enactment of laws that must facilitate access to safe, effective, affordable 
and acceptable sexual and reproductive health care services for all. The 
Constitution of Nigeria 1999 does not recognise the right to health, including 
sexual and reproductive right, as a justiciable right. However, other human 
rights provisions in the Constitution such as rights to life, dignity and 
non-discrimination can be invoked indirectly to advance the sexual and 
reproductive rights of the people. But the challenge remains an ill-informed 
and naïve civil society groups and media on issues relating to sexual and 
reproductive health. Lack of attention to an individual��s sexual and 
reproductive health needs impacts not only on the individual but also the 
family and the society as a whole. 

Sexual and reproductive rights are relatively new concepts; hence many 
countries, including Nigeria, are still grappling with their full meaning and 
contents. Oftentimes, the society including civil society organizations and the 
media tend to treat reproductive health and rights as if they are the same with 
sexual health and rights. This conflation of concepts may be traced to the 
definition of reproductive health and rights provided at the International 
Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994. At that conference 
reproductive health was broadly defined in such a way that sexual health was 
subsumed as part of it. Although at the Fourth World Conference on Women that 
took place in Beijing 1995, it was agreed that human rights of women include 
rights to have control over their sexuality including their sexual and 
reproductive health free from discrimination, coercion and violence, 
nonetheless, there was no specific definition of the concept of sexual health. 
It is just of recent that the World Health Organization has provided a working 
definition of sexual health to include ��a state of physical, emotional, mental 
and social well-being in relation to sexuality�� and not merely the absence of 
disease, dysfunction or infirmity. At the 2005 meeting of the UN General 
Assembly it was agreed that universal access to sexual and reproductive health 
services should be included as part of the targets for the Millennium 
Development Goals. 

Policy makers, non-governmental organizations, legal practitioners, 
journalists, health care providers and the society as a whole often exhibit 
lack of understanding on issues relating to sexual and reproductive health. In 
some situations, the society has struggled with misconceptions and deliberate 
distortion of facts with regard to the contents and relevance of sexual and 
reproductive health and rights. In a culturally and religiously polarised 
society as Nigeria, the negative effects of culture and religion on the 
realisation of sexual and reproductive rights cannot be underestimated. Indeed, 
cultural beliefs and religious tenets have combined to subdue knowledge, fuel 
violation of sexual and reproductive rights and stand in the way of legislative 
reforms. Little wonder then the dearth of knowledge on issues relating to 
sexual and reproductive rights in the country. A possible consequence of this 
is threat to lives and health of marginalised and disadvantaged groups in the 
society. 

Issues such as ensuring access to contraception for adolescents, respecting 
sexual rights of people living with HIV and protecting the rights of sexual 
minorities are still fiercely contested. Due to cultural and religious beliefs, 
adolescents, especially unmarried adolescent girls, are not expected to engage 
in sexual activities nor even seek information regarding their sexuality. 
Ironically, unwanted pregnancy, HIV infection, unsafe abortion and maternal 
mortality and morbidity continue to be on the increase among young people. 
Nigeria is said to have one of the highest incidences of unsafe abortion in the 
region. 

Although Nigeria has one of the most vibrant civil society groups and media 
organisations, however, due to lack of adequate knowledge and misconceptions on 
matters relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights, these 
organizations have failed to respond adequately to sexual and reproductive 
rights violations in the country. Most civil society organizations claiming to 
be working on sexual and reproductive health and rights tend to focus more on 
the reproductive part and hardly engage in sexual health and rights issues. 
Moreover, journalists who ought to educate the public on issues relating to 
sexual and reproductive rights, sometimes fuel misconceptions about these 
issues through negative reporting. In many developing countries such as 
Nigeria, experience has shown that people often lack knowledge relating to 
their human rights and therefore are unable to seek redress for violations of 
their rights. Moreover such persons are unable to prevent violations of 
others�� rights as they are unable to identify if a violation of right has 
taken place. This can be particularly true in the case of emerging rights such 
as sexual and reproductive health care. Such a situation is dangerous to the 
society as a whole, especially when one considers the fact that issues of 
sexual and reproductive health are matters of life and death. 

Any society that does not take seriously the health needs of its people, 
including their sexual and reproductive health needs exposes itself to ill 
health and other deleterious consequences. On the other hand, in a society 
where people are knowledgeable about their rights, including their sexual and 
reproductive rights, there is a tendency that the dignity and human rights of 
others will be respected. The result will be a society where justice, equity, 
peace and harmony reign supreme. Knowledge on sexual and reproductive health 
issues has the potential to prevent unnecessary loss of lives, facilitate 
policy reforms and develop local capacity in this field. 

Bede Eziefule
Center for the Right to Health
blog: crhaids.blogspot.com
mailto:crhaids@yahoo.com

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