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Thought Leadership

Partnering with Religious and Traditional Leaders to Improve Sexual and Reproductive Health Services in Nigeria

By Gabriel Oke (Lead Writer)

Deliberate engagement with respected community influencers is one way to encourage the uptake of reproductive health services. This will able the smooth deployment of Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) programmes at the grass-root level. This strategy is one of several that Marie Stopes International Organisation Nigeria (MSION) employs to drive their activities across all 36 states in Nigeria and the Federal Capital Territory.

To further promote public knowledge, awareness, and community participation in SRHR interventions, MSION in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH) organised a 2-day meeting with traditional and religious leaders to discuss child spacing and sexual reproductive health interventions. FMoH and MSION also took advantage of the meeting to solicit for the continuous support of traditional and religious leaders in promoting the benefits of family planning in their various communities. This meeting was a follow-up to previous engagements with traditional and religious leaders in different locations around the country.

High-level traditional and religious leaders at the event discussed some of the critical issues affecting the provision and uptake of quality reproductive health services in Nigeria. Photo credit: Marie Stopes International Organisation Nigeria

Strategies and blueprints for SRHR
Recounting MSION’s impact in 2020, Effiom N. Effiom, Country Director, MSION said, almost 6 million women were introduced to modern contraception and as a result, about 2 million unintended pregnancies were prevented, over 700,000 unsafe abortions averted and over 13,000 maternal deaths prevented. Acknowledging the role community and religious leaders played in making this possible, he said, “We recognise the partnership with the traditional and religious leaders as beneficial. Our experience in working in over 600 LGAs in the 36 states on family planning and broader sexual and reproductive health has shown that your opinions and influence as traditional and religious leaders are respected by your constituents’’. He added that Marie Stopes also developed a 10-year strategy focused on “Leaving no one behind”. The objective was to ensure that every woman needing a service to space or plan births and prevent unintended pregnancies receives the service they need.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

In his address, Dr. Kayode Afolabi, Director of Reproductive Health, FMoH, mentioned that, “Access to comprehensive healthcare services that address sexual and reproductive health and rights can change the course of an individual’s life and increase the chances of attaining their full potential”. Dr Afolabi introduced the Nigeria Family Planning Blueprint (Scale-up Plan scale-up plan 2020–2024) which aims to mobilise strong political will to reduce maternal mortality and improve sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Family planning commodities
Improving on the availability of family planning (FP) commodities can increase family planning outcomes and the average modern contraceptive prevalence rate which is 17% among married women. Dr. Kingsley Odogwu, Director, Clinical Services at Marie Stopes stated that even a Muslim country like Malaysia has higher modern contraceptive uptake rates than Nigeria. For example, the Contraceptive Prevalence Rate (CPR) in Malaysia for all methods is 55% and for modern methods, it is 35%. He reiterated that the event was meant to engage with traditional and religious leaders on the benefits of family planning commodities. “Some of the key barriers we are facing in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) today are caused by sociocultural, religious, and economic factors. These barriers can be addressed by engaging with traditional and religious leaders who are gatekeepers and key decisionmakers in our various communities. We also need to address existing customs and practices through advocacy and partnerships by engaging the media actively,” he said.
 
Recommendations for improving access to SRHR
Nigeria continues to face challenges meeting the sexual and reproductive health needs of its population and according to Dr. Ejike Orji, Chairman, Association for Advancement of FP, Nigeria’s growing population and unmet FP needs, particularly among young people, are grounds for sustained conversation around family planning.

Several key messages emerged from the conversation during the 2-day event. One of such messages was the fact that traditional and religious leaders should support efforts to address myths and misconceptions that drive resistance for the uptake of family planning and other SRHR services and they could play a leadership role in supporting efforts in their communities to address harmful cultural norms and practices.

They were also encouraged to hold government and other stakeholders accountable, by speaking up against identified deficiencies, failures, and anomalies to facilitate proper implementation of health policies. They were asked to call on all tiers of government to include sex education in the school curriculum, to ensure that adolescents and young people have access to quality information on sexual and reproductive health.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

On their part, traditional and religious leaders called on all tiers of government to facilitate policy implementation, especially policies on adolescent access to SRHR services as well as leading in capacity building of health workers to ensure the availability of trained SRHR service providers in all primary healthcare centres in Nigeria.

Although family planning services should be basic and essential services, millions of women and girls have little or no access to these services. Globally, over 35 million unsafe abortions happen every year, and over 230 million women and girls have little or no access to contraception. If left unchecked, this number will increase to over 300 million by 2030. Marie Stopes envisions a world in which, by 2030, no abortion will be unsafe, and everyone will have access to contraception at their point of need.

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