Ndlovu: It is Necessary to Harness Nigeria’s Demographic Dividend

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In commemoration of the World Population Day, the Resident Representative of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Ms. Ratidzai Ndlovu, spoke with Damilola Oyedele on the efforts of the agency to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates in Nigeria, and the need to harness the youth resourceNigeria remains one of the highest contributors to global statistics on maternal and infant mortality rates. What is the local UNFPA doing to reduce this?
UNFPA in Nigeria is doing a lot to try and address maternal and neo-natal mortality rates. For maternal mortality, UNFPA believes there is a need to consider a wholesome package, part of which includes family planning. This is the spacing of pregnancy and we have invested a lot in that area because we believe there are risky pregnancies and we need to reduce them. There are what we call the ‘four toos’: either it’s too early to be pregnant, the person is too young, the pelvic is not developed enough to allow the baby come out through the passage, that is a risky pregnancy right from the word go. Then it could be too frequent, the body of the mother is too weak after the previous pregnancy, it needs to settle and the uterus needs to be strengthened and ready to go through this vigorous process. Also too late is risky if the mother is over 50. Too many: the uterus continues to stretch and stretch to the point there could be a rupture. Also in too early cases, there may be ruptures because the pelvic is not developed enough, so the uterus stretches and then bursts. The person ends up with fistula, and the ‘too late’ person also run that risk.

So we have fistula programmes as a result of these, to try to address maternal mortality, the problem is that they end up dying usually. So we have family planning programmes for healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies. We also have a supply chain management programme which addresses all these, because we need the commodities and the drugs. So we buy a lot these, we support the governments who also put in a lot of money into the basket for us to procure these family planning commodities which are called reproductive health life saving drugs.
We also support the distribution system, working with government. We have also recently been supporting the ware housing, so it’s like we support the whole chain. We renovated the contraceptives warehouse in Lagos, and other things to try to ensure the drugs are kept in proper environments. These are some of the things we do to try to reduce maternal mortality rates.

Due to cultural and religious sensibilities, many Nigerians shy away from discussing teenage sex, teenage pregnancy and such issues. How feasible is this in the face of contemporary realities?
This is right because a section of reproductive health matters is a very sensitive area for many people, but it is not an area that we can afford to ignore, because the truth is that young people do have sex. Yet because of our culture in Africa, not only in Nigeria, it’s hard for a mother or for parents to talk to their children about sex. Even the word sex, or relationships, it’s difficult for them to talk about. The UNFPA has it as a core programme to ensure that young people are well informed about their bodies. Talking about sexuality education is about the young girl and young boy understanding what is happening to them at puberty. There are some young girls who believe having sex only once would not make them pregnant. Those are myths, but they share this information among their peers. They believe it because there is no counter education which is correct. They go to movies, they see all these things happening on television but we are not coming in with education to let them know what to do, so they can make informed decisions.
Communication is very important and the UNFPA tries to work with parents, traditional leaders and communities. When we do a youth programme, we involve all these groups, so that whatever message we are giving is culturally and religiously appropriate, while at the same time correct.

How many pregnancies are too much?
We do not give numbers, but the person has had so many of them that the uterus is now so weak after being stretched and over stretched. It has been stretched too many times, people differ in terms of their body constitution, so what may be too many for one person is okay for another. So we cannot prescribe numbers here but a woman should have just enough children that would allow her to stay strong. We are talking of risky pregnancies, and even in family planning, we advocate that people have the number of children that they are able to take care of comfortably: feed, educate, provide health services, clothe and generally live a comfortable life, while the person is also psychologically comfortable; not to be stressed to the point that you no longer enjoy the children. If you have 13 or 15 children, it’s okay if you can take care of them without doing unethical or illegal things, you can feed them well, send them all to school. But we know practically, that is hard. Some parents die from ailments like high blood pressure: this is a disease that comes from numerous pressures from challenges that they cannot solve because they feel the family is too huge and they cannot manage it. So we should do what leaves us comfortable.

Does the UNFPA implement any specific programmes on Safe Pregnancy?
Yes, we do have. We have a girl child initiative, it’s fairly new but we are really looking forward to expanding it. The initiative is something we are excited about because we are working with school girls to create safe spaces for their learning. We started with 200 girls and another 80 whom we managed to bring back to school. The programme encourages the girls to continue with education until they finish secondary and go to tertiary, with us supporting their education.
Then we work with role models mothers because the issue of child rearing is very important. So the role model mothers are catalysts in their education, who the girls can wish to be like. We get them to work with the girls, talk to them and encourage them.

How would rate the success of the MDGs specifically as it concerns women issues?
In fact, Nigeria has done fairly well in some of the MDGs: HIV, child mortality is a little better when compared with maternal mortality. But when it comes to gender, there were no tangible indicators against which to make good measurements, and as we move towards the post 2015 development agenda, that needs to be taken into account.

Since we are talking post 2015 MDGs, let me say that right now, UNFPA has initiated a global selfies youth campaign where we hope to have millions of selfies from young people. Their photos would all be used as a campaign to say we need a youth goal, specifically targeted at young people, because if there is no goal around a certain area, all funds in the development world or from donors, comes through the agreed goal. So they are funding these things, and the youth are supposed to benefit, sometimes it gets lost. But if there is a goal for young people, then there would be funding specifically for them, whether in education, employment, health and everything targeted at them.

We are encouraging Nigerian youths, if they put their selfies up; it means they have put most of Africa’s selfies onto the campaign. This will make the world know we need a goal for youths; otherwise we are paying lip service to the young people.
And in preparation for a youth agenda post 2015, we have started to engage the youth. We are at a crossroads, we are about to move into a new era where we would examine what is being done, so we are fighting to make sure the post 2015 agenda puts youths in the centre. We are yet to see what would be in the final document against which UNFPA would support and implement programmes supporting governments through whatever the outcomes are. If we do not get it right, then we would have lost an opportunity, so right now, we are campaigning for this.

How has it been collaborating with the Federal Government in Nigeria for the implementation of your programmes?
UNFPA works with state governments, but we work with the Federal Government because it provides the policy guidelines, overall coordination and monitoring. So we have that collaboration and in each state we have a number of commissioners we work with. We are in process of trying to develop a multi-sectoral programme because we are currently working with the other UN agencies under the leadership of the Resident Coordinator, on what we call the demographic dividend initiative. It is just starting, but what we are saying is that it is necessary to harness Nigeria’s demographic dividend, especially the youth dividend because it has a huge bank of young people. To invest in certain critical sectors such as education, health, youth employment, gender equity, social protection is very important. Those are key pillars for us at the UN and UNFPA is the lead technical agency in this. We only work in health and only reproductive health, but we need education, women affairs, ILO, UNICEF, UN Women all on board, and we can only harness that through a multi sectoral approach. We would do a roll out of sensitisation seminars to educate the whole country on what it means to harness demographic dividend. We would also have multi sectoral programmes that would invest in these key sectors. During the discussions, we would consider how to develop the programmes.
We also work with NGOs to support us with community engagement, supporting the state or the federal government.

What challenges does the UNFPA encounter in implementing its programmes in Nigeria?
Some of them have to do with understanding some of these terminologies we are talking about. Personally I feel there is need for more dialogue to explain the meanings because the meanings people have of certain terms are not accurate. It’s like throwing away the baby and the bath water, then everything is lost. Things like sexuality education: some people think it’s something else from what we have been explaining. They think it teaches children to be promiscuous. But sexuality education is to teach the young adolescent to delay sexual activity and focus on education, help them understand that if they do certain things, they will get pregnant. So we need dialogue to explain the advantages of some of the things that are not understood well, and therefore not taken.

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