Reaching new heights for girls in northern Nigeria

Portraits of gender equality and empowerment

By Samantha Halyk


It’s a harsh reality that inequalities exist in nearly every aspect of society. It is not something new but it is something we can change.

In northern Nigeria, it is often girls and women who face the biggest barriers in their culture and society. While adolescent boys can freely access health facilities, girls must be accompanied by their parents, brothers or husband.

Adolescent girls often have a greater need to access sexual and reproductive health information and services than boys do. Boys are able to buy condoms from the shop down the road, whereas girls need a health facility for specific contraception, to discuss puberty and menstruation, and to access antenatal care if pregnant.

Teenage girls are generally not even able to make their own decisions about when they will marry or start having kids and how often. These important decisions are typically made by their father, husband or mother-in-law.

Stigma around being sexually active and accessing sexual and reproductive health services is also a huge issue across the region. Many girls are ashamed to seek medical advice on contraception, ask questions about puberty and their bodies, and talk about sex.

However, through education and greater access to health services, the equality scale between men and women and boys and girls is beginning to close in the region.

Hadiza is a healthcare worker in Katsina State who is promoting gender equality through increased access to sexual and reproductive health services with Save the Children.

“I have seen a lot of progress. Before the project started here with Save the Children, our younger adolescents didn’t usually come to the health facility because they were ashamed,” explained Hadiza. “But, with the program, they are aware and are now not ashamed of coming to the hospital. They will come and talk to us about all of their problems. They explain and we give them the information and assistance they want [and need].”

“The main improvement I have seen in the community so far is the increased number of people accessing the health facility for family planning,” Hadiza explains.

Family planning is the ability to control if and when you decide to have children, including how many and the spacing intervals between pregnancies.

Having children too early or too close together can put girls’ lives in danger. In fact, complications during childbirth is the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 in Nigeria. Pregnancy is also a major factor for adolescent girls dropping out of school.

About 90% of adolescent pregnancies in Nigeria are to girls who are married. Pregnancy outside of wedlock is unconventional in northern Nigeria, which is why some parents believe early marriage for their daughters protects the family image. Marriage is also perceived to be an investment. For many poorer families, marrying their daughters is a source of economic income as prospective suitors will offer dowry in exchange for their hand in marriage. However, when girls marry early, they are less likely to graduate and reach their full potential, have reduced access to health care, and face greater risks of suffering domestic violence.

Common barriers in accessing health services

In pockets of northern Nigeria, accessing health centres can be difficult. Some girls in rural villages are forced to walk upwards of three hours to access a hospital if needed, potentially exposing them to safety risks.

Affordability is also an issue. Seeing a health worker and accessing life-saving vaccinations and contraception can be pricey for young adults, especially those with limited economic opportunities.

All children and adolescents have the right to access quality health care. But for some girls in Nigeria, it is health workers who are the barriers to accessing crucial sexual and reproductive health services.

“When unmarried girls would come here for family planning services, we used to not give them [contraception]. Through training from Save the Children, we’ve learned that it is better to give girls the family planning they want such as preventing unwanted pregnancies. We’ve noticed now that girls are not ashamed to come here,” explains Hadiza.

Northern Nigeria is known to be an ultraconservative region of the country. Unmarried girls seeking medical advice on safe sex and unwanted pregnancies is taboo – even for healthcare workers. Save the Children’s REACH program works with healthcare workers and local governmental bodies to challenge these harmful gender norms.

Boys and Girls Are Equal

REACH is improving the decision making of married and unmarried adolescent girls to make informed health decisions with the help of community Change Agents.

“The community set up the program happily and joyfully because it can help women and their children. They were very accepting,” said Hembadoon*, a Change Agent working in Katsina State. “It encourages boys and girls to see they are equal. There is no difference between boys and girls.”

“The most important change we are expecting with this program is that everyone will understand the value of education for girls and the value of gender equality.”

When girls are educated and empowered to access these health services, they are more likely to stay in school and make informed decisions including if, when and whom to marry.

In a small community in Katsina State, Auwalu* attends Save the Children’s safe space with other boys and girls aged 10 to 14 from surrounding villages.

Here, he is learning to view family activities and the division of household labour as gender-neutral rather than believing certain chores like sweeping should be done by girls. Auwalu* has also been learning about conflict resolution with friends and siblings, and about positive gender norms to prevent sexual and gender-based violence.

Auwalu’s* father, Muhammad, is impressed with the changes he has seen in his son’s attitude and behaviour so far.

“Seeing my son interact in decision-making is really impressive. My son is even influencing his younger siblings and friends [to change certain beliefs and practices]; he has a team spirit,” said Muhammad. “My son is really determined now.”

“When you see your child having this kind of positive change and being given the duty to work as a team with siblings, it will not only transform the family but also the community. When a child has new information, they can change society – at the playground, at school. He is introducing the new things he is learning. I am really impressed,” Muhammad continued.

The REACH program also facilitates support groups for teens aged 15 to 19. In the Voices group, boys and girls learn about sexual health including puberty, and how to have positive conversations with parents and other adults to improve gender equality at home.

Engaging mothers and fathers on topics of gender equality is a key step in influencing change among other parents in the wider community.

Auwalu’s* father is one example of how the REACH program is inspiring change within families. Muhammad explains that since learning about gender equality and its importance, he now knows he cannot deprive his children of their equal rights. He describes this mindset change as a “coming of age”, now becoming a fully established adult.

“I have no regrets whatsoever and I am willing to give my son all of the necessary support, assistance and encouragement I can give him, to go to whatever length is needed to influence change.”

Save the Children’s REACH program, which stands for Reaching and Empowering Adolescents to make informed Choices for their Health, started in 2018 and operates in Katsina, Gombe and Zamfara in northern Nigeria.

Thanks to funding from the Government of Canada, we have reached more than 72,000 girls and boys across the three states.

*Names changed for privacy