In Niger, talking about sex and contraceptives isn’t always easy. But little by little, things are changing.
Innocent Ibrahim started out as a family planning youth ambassador—basically, a young person who talks to other young people about contraceptives.
He knew only too well that something as simple as an implant or a condom could be the difference between an early, unwanted pregnancy and a future of education and prosperity—especially in countries like his, where fertility and maternal deaths are high and access to reproductive health services is low.
And he wanted to make sure his friends and peers in Niger knew it, too.
“I felt a moral duty to contribute to improving the health of youth, and the population in general, in Niger and beyond,” Innocent says.
So in 2015, he became part of a movement. He’s one of 364 young activists from across West Africa to become a family planning youth ambassador. They go through training, provided by IntraHealth International through its Civil Society for Family Planning Plus (CS4FP Plus) project, to lead family planning and reproductive health advocacy campaigns across the nine francophone West African countries that make up the Ouagadougou Partnership, a coalition that’s working to give 2.2 million more people in the region access to family planning by 2020.
The ambassadors advocate to their countries’ decision-makers to make their priorities heard. And they reach out to school-aged kids, young adults, and newlyweds to offer sex education and information on different contraceptive options, including long-acting reversible methods such as implants and injectables.
“The economic argument is often the most effective in getting through to people,” Innocent says. “Previously education and health care were provided for free by the government, but they’re not any more. So now people often can’t afford to have too many children. Spacing children allows both husbands and wives to contribute economically to their families.”
When sex education was first introduced in Niger, there was a strong backlash.
Since his youth ambassador days, Innocent has been promoted. He’s now country coordinator for CS4FP Plus in Niger, which means he oversees coalition activities, including those organized by youth ambassadors.
Part of Innocent’s new role is to serve as a bridge between the CS4FP team in the capital city and the activities on the ground. He coordinates between the ministries of health and education and the Ouagadougou Partnership, and between the ministries and the project. His role in managing the relationships of a complex consortium is a challenge.
An even bigger challenge, though, is expanding sex education in Niger. Together, the partners are making progress.
“When sexual education was first introduced in Niger, there was a strong backlash by some religious leaders, to the point that the government removed these modules from schools,” Innocent says. “Parents also opposed what they saw as something that was inciting their children to have sex.”
But it soon became clear that young Nigeriens’ needs for information were going unmet. So the government turned to a program of comprehensive sexual education to address these needs. Though, to ease parents’ concerns, Innocent says, “the curriculum is no longer called ‘comprehensive sexual education’ in Niger, but has been rebranded as ‘youth and adolescent reproductive health education’.”
CS4FP Plus has been adapting the education modules to make sure they’re comprehensive and customized to Niger’s specific sociocultural reality, in partnership the Ministry of Secondary Education (MSE).
Now the MSE is implementing the sex ed modules in middle and high schools by training 450 teachers in three regions of Niger (Tilaberi, Zinder, and Agadez) with the financial support of UNFPA. CS4FP Plus will help train 105 teachers in two regions of Niger (Maradi and Niamey). And the project has trained 60 trainers of trainers from Niamey and across the country with the support of Dutch government funding.
Kids in these regions will now have access to the information during classes as well as in after-school health clubs in middle and high schools.
“We just keep asking ourselves, ‘How can we best make sure the information gets to the students who need it?’” Innocent says.
I give them advice that I didn’t receive when I was a youth ambassador.
He and the CS4FP Plus team are also working to integrate family planning services in Niger with other services, such as nutrition.
“It’s important that someone coming to a health center can receive both services at once,” he says. “And it’s especially important for displaced or refugee populations.” The team also advocates for more youth-friendly reproductive health and family planning services.
After starting off as a youth ambassador, Innocent already had a pretty good idea of the realities and challenges of making contraceptives more widely available in Niger. So he works to make sure the youth ambassadors he supervises today have as much or even more support than he had when he was in their place.
“I give them advice that I didn’t receive when I was a youth ambassador,” he says. “I talk to them about the eligibility criteria, making sure they’re respected, how to conduct themselves and organize themselves as a network.”
Another thing that’s changed since his youth ambassador days: Innocent got married.
“Before I was married, a lot of my friends would come to me for advice for family planning because they trusted me, and I would proactively talk to them. But now that I’m married, it gives me an even better perspective on what young married couples want and need. I’m in their shoes now.”
Also read: Innocent Ibrahim: Future Planner
Published on 09-24-2018 in Vital