In countries around the world, sexual violence against women and girls contributes to their higher risk of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion. In Nigeria, a youth-led social media campaign is raising awareness of the link between sexual violence and reproductive health and adding a critical new voice to the national debate over reform of the country’s anti-violence laws.
The “#Choice4Life”campaign is engaging thousands of Nigerians online and providing young people, in particular, a space to openly discuss the dangers of unsafe abortion and speak out in support of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) bill pending in the Nigerian parliament. The bill would provide an important legal framework for dealing with issues including rape and female genital mutilation.
The campaign grew out of a workshop in Abuja last spring that brought together 30 young leaders—a group including doctors, pharmacists, journalists and others active on social media platforms. The goal was to build the young leaders’ knowledge about sexual and reproductive rights and health in Nigeria and enhance their skills in sharing that information through social media networks.
“It was an eye-opener for me,” says Oluwabusayomi Sotunde, one of several writers and bloggers who participated. “Unsafe abortion is an issue that should be brought to the fore-burner in Nigeria. The government should be aware that restrictions placed on abortion laws are doing more harm than good. Until there is legal support [for law reform], more lives will continue to be lost as the result of unsafe abortion.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a policy and research organization, unsafe abortion is one of the major causes of maternal death in Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa. It is estimated that 3,000 Nigerian women die from unsafe abortion each year. A recent national health survey, meanwhile, found that one in ten Nigerian women had experienced physical violence in the previous year.
“Gender-based violence—particularly sexual violence—appears to be on the rise in Nigeria in recent years,” says Hauwa Shekarau, Ipas Nigeria Senior Advisor for Policy and Advocacy. “Aside from punishing perpetrators of gender-based violence, there is a need to ensure that the rights of victims to quality health services are protected by law.”
In a blog posted online earlier this year, Dr. Sylva Nze Ifedigbo, another of the workshop participants, lamented the “slow progress” of the VAPP bill: “Whatever side of the argument you belong, the important fact is that cases of sexual abuse and gender based violence remains a fact of life in our society, occurring at rates that are both scary and unacceptable.”
Noting that Nigeria has one of the largest social media networks in Africa, Ipas Nigeria Advisor Chudi Ene says the popularity and growing influence of social media in Nigeria is a tool for social change. “Some of the young leaders we reached out to in this campaign have more than 70,000 followers on Twitter,” Ene says. “It will greatly expand the reach of the awareness-raising efforts around sexual and reproductive health and rights issues in Nigeria.”
As Ifedigbo puts it, “This campaign is a way to get young people, especially, involved in efforts to better the situation. If you want to get your message across today, you have to think of a way to creatively communicate it using social media.”
He and other campaign members have been doing just that. Using such social media hashtags as #Choice4Life and #VAPPBill, they have been blogging, tweeting and posting on Facebook about unsafe abortion, sexual violence and other sexual and reproductive health and rights issues. Sotunde, for instance, has posted pieces such as “30 Things You Need to Know about Abortion and Maternal Death in Nigeria.”
Dr. Laz Ude Eze, a public physician, says #Choice4Life is successfully reaching young Nigerians. “Through the tweets, blog posts and online quizzes, lots of young people have joined the conversations, including political leaders and celebrities,” he notes.
The #Choice4Life campaigners are also focusing attention on issues such as the current outbreak of the Ebola virus and the sexual violence that was reportedly perpetrated on the Nigerian school girls abducted earlier this year. The #Choice4Life team serves on the steering committee of the Abuja chapter of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
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