Navigating Uncertainty: How Teenage Girls Confront Sexual Abuse with Family Planning

In a health center at the heart of Yola North local government a young woman sits timidly, almost secluded in the midst of other women as a health official delivers a lecture on reproductive health. Some of the women are first timers while some others are regular visitors at the facility where health workers say child spacing contraceptives is free.

It is a safe space for women where the new comers could ask tough questions which the more regular visitors could help answer using their personal experiences. The various options are laid bare after which the women are required to make their choices.

Some of the women are there to take off implants and discontinue their family planning journey signaling their readiness to conceive again. The young woman neither asked questions nor made any contribution to the discussions but she was no doubt learning fast. It was her second family planning appointment and she had opted for injectables.

Pamela Story

It turns out Pamela Joseph unlike most of the women attending the lecture (not her real name) 20, is not married. In a private room, Pamela will not make an eye contact as she fiddles with her tiny fingers in a moment of self-reflection as if considering her decision after she had agreed to share her story with us.

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“I gave birth to my child at the age of 18, he is now two. My father asked me to stop coming to his house and the father of the child told me he doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. I have been homeless ever since. I heard about contraceptives from my friend months back; she took me to a pharmacy, and we got it there -she said that’s what is helping her. Then I later learnt that you could get it from experts in hospital that’s why I started coming here. I normally do it for two months the last one I did have expired.”

A tearful Pamela took us through a journey of peer pressure and a tough pregnancy as a 17-year-old excommunicated from family spending time in and out of hospital and begging strangers for alms to raise money for a caesarian section as the doctors had advised.

She claims she was drugged in a post-graduation school party and raped and became pregnant, but her abuser disowns her and has moved to another city and remained absent in the life of the product of that rape.

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Today Pamela is a self-sponsored student of one of the tertiary institutions in Adamawa state even though her source of income is not known. Her family is yet to recover from the cracks the stigma of her unplanned out of wedlock pregnancy had caused. She has learnt so many lessons in two years as a young parent, one of which is family planning.

“Well, I am scared of getting pregnant again at this my age. For me family planning is good because had it been I know about it earlier on I would have helped myself; I won’t have fought with both my parents so for me family planning is good.”

TCI Data

In an effort to prevent unplanned pregnancies and the harsh stigma associated with them, a rising number of young girls and teenagers like Pamela are turning to contraceptives.

According to data made available by The Challenge Initiative, a partner NGO working with the Adamawa Healthcare Development Agency on child spacing, Adamawa state ranks fifth nationally on new acceptors of the service.

Data also indicates that of the 52, 627 new acceptors in the last quarter, 1025 are unmarried teenagers/adolescents aged between 14-19 years. Interviews with several young women reveal a complex tapestry of motivations, experiences, and societal pressures that shape their decisions.

Other Young Women

Zainab Isa, a 19-year-old student at MAUTECH, began using contraceptive injections after overhearing a discussion about family planning. “I thought about the way we are living and the attitude of young men these days. So rather than get pregnant and abort, which is committing double sin, it’s best to take the family planning injection and be at peace.”  she said.

“They view those of us that have taken the injection as wayward but we still prefer it this way rather than getting pregnant and attracting curses. If I go to the hospital, no one knows why I’m there unless the nurse tells them herself. No one will know because they say your privacy is safe. We are only seeking prayers and hope that when it’s time for us to repent and change our ways, we will.” She says.

Zainab’s decision is driven by a desire to avoid the severe consequences of unplanned pregnancies, including family shame and the risk of unsafe abortions. As far as she is concerned, “Prevention is better than cure” she tells us, echoing a sentiment shared by many of her peers.

Jummai Aliyu, another unmarried young woman who recently began using contraceptive injections, believes family planning is essential for both married and unmarried women. “It’s useful to prevent unwanted pregnancies” she noted. Her decision stems from a fear of unintended pregnancies and the societal judgment that often follows.

“They counsel us against going about having reckless sex because we can also contract disease because someone may not tell you even if he has a deadly disease and the family planning drugs cannot prevent diseases.” She says.

In Another Locality

In a different facility within Girei Local Government, a growing number of girls, driven by fear and uncertainty, are turning to contraceptives with some of them having been taking these since they turned 15.

Suzan Adams and Tina Musa both 18, started using contraceptives to avoid the stigma and life-altering consequences of unplanned pregnancies when they turned 16. Tina, motivated by the experiences of other girls whose pregnancies disrupted their education and brought family shame, decided to take control of her reproductive health.

Suzan on the other hand -regrets her decision to use contraceptives as according to her it enables girls to be promiscuous.  “Once a girl gets pregnant its over for her but I still can’t advise anyone to take it. My father is late. I once asked someone for a loan to buy sanitary pads and he declined and gave me the condition of sleeping with him first and he is close to my family. But my favorite thing about the family planning is I don’t have to buy sanitary pad anymore- it stopped my flow since I started taking and that’s one less problem to worry about.”

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Experts say this is normal and not a problem hormonal disruption stops menstrual flow as long as a woman is on contraceptive medication.

These stories reveal a shared desire to avoid the severe repercussions of unplanned pregnancies, including social stigma, family conflict as experienced by Pamela, and disruptions to their education and future prospects.

Young women face significant challenges, including a lack of comprehensive sex education and limited access to reliable information and healthcare services.

Healthcare providers and community leaders are recognizing the gap and the importance of supporting girls. Advocacy for comprehensive sex education and policies ensuring confidential and affordable access to contraceptives is growing, aiming to empower more young people to choices about their sexual health.

Community Leader

John Dali, a community leader who supports family planning for both married and unmarried girls explained its importance. “My daughter is a decent girl, but you cannot guard a girl completely. I insisted she takes it to protect herself” he said. According to him, his advocacy has led to a decrease in unplanned pregnancies and unsafe abortions in the community.

“As a leader I had to instruct my daughter not because she’s wayward, but no one knows what will happen and to lead by example. I talk to some of the young girls myself and they became convinced to take it. In this same community we have seen a 12-year-old getting pregnant but since they started the family planning, we don’t hear about a lot of girls getting pregnant again. And we see girls conceiving a month or two into their marriage. So, you can see it has no adverse effect. I take part in sensitization for both married and unmarried women to have healthy family and to also help the ladies.” John posits.

His daughter, 18-year-old Blessing John says she began using contraceptives at 16. She sees it as a way to protect herself from the pressures and temptations that can lead to unplanned pregnancies. “Whatever happens, I am protected” she stated.

18-year-old Janet Peter is another teenage acceptor influenced by her aunt to avoid the fate of a friend who became pregnant and faced societal scorn.

Fear of Societal Stigma

However, the fear of the possibility of rape is also a significant part of the narratives of these young women. They live in a society that offers no protection to its girls but is quick to judge the victim in the event of rape and its outcomes. The girls must now prepare against the outcome of rape, among other threats.

“I live with my aunt and her family in a public compound with a lot of men, and you know sometimes the men can take advantage of that familiarity and rape you. I don’t like it there but what do I do? Some of them will ask me to wash or iron their clothes or cook for them. I am aware of the risk involved. That’s why I never miss my dose.” Janet confesses.

Jafu Halidu, 18, shares thoughts about sexual predators similar to those of Janet. “I started accessing the drugs when I was 16. And I am now in SS 2. I am not sexually active. I just took the injection because we go to school every day and we don’t know what might happen, so I do it to protect myself. It’s not fair to judge us because the same people criticizing our decisions are the ones who will condemn us if things went wrong but we are only protecting ourselves from misfortune—that’s why we do it.”

Her concern resonates other girls living in environments where the risk of sexual assault is high, and societal support is minimal.

Despite efforts by health agencies to provide free and accessible contraceptive services, these girls face a double stigma: judged for taking responsibility for their sexual health and for their sexual activity itself.

Rachel Michael, Director of Maternal and Child Healthcare in Yola North LGA, has been talking about the critical role of family planning services among teenage girls. She explains that adolescents because of their naivety often face reckless behavior from men, leading to unplanned pregnancies. According to her, the adolescent family planning program helps prevent unwanted pregnancies and protects against diseases.

“So, we decided to allow them access to the child birth spacing products but most people are saying we introduced them to prostitution and other things, not knowing that we are actually helping them. Without this program, they might go out, get pregnant, and then try to abort it, often resulting in them losing their lives. You know for these adolescents once they get pregnant, their education usually ends. But with this program, we are achieving many positive outcomes.”

Their Stories

Some adolescents when they show up, according to Rachel, report that they are in school with no one to support them, and their parents are too poor to help, so they seek out men to get money to support their education.

She said “Others say their parents force them into marriage at a young age, leading them to go out and engage in risky behaviors to avoid this fate. Some girls have experienced multiple pregnancies and fear they will never be able to conceive again due to complications, often based on stories they hear from friends.”

Many girls share stories of being chased out of their homes when they become pregnant, often due to a lack of sex education and support. These actions can lead to unsafe termination methods, risking their lives. Health workers stress the importance of embracing and counseling these young women, as getting pregnant is not the end of their lives.

“Family planning options for women, such as pills, Jadelle, and injectables, do not prevent STDs, so we educate them on using male condoms to prevent both pregnancies and STDs. We counsel them on self-protection. All the services are free, and clients can choose from various options.” She explains.

Community resistance to teenage contraceptives is being addressed through dialogue and sensitization involving community leaders, youth groups, religious leaders, and women groups by highlighting benefits beyond pregnancy prevention.

“Now, many leaders affirm that they no longer find newborn infants discarded in gutters and have become more supportive of our efforts.” Rachel stated.

TCI’s Program Manager Adamawa state Office Godiya Yusuf Waziri praises the policies supporting childbirth spacing and the mutual benefits of community partnerships.

He acknowledges the mixed reception of these programs due to cultural and religious beliefs but stresses the importance of educating young minds to make informed decisions about their health and lifestyles.

“The idea is not to expose children to social vices but to provide them with information so they can make informed decisions regarding their health and lifestyles, especially about having a healthy family. The main message is to encourage them to come to the health centers to access the services they need instead of going to the roadside and taking commodities that are not prescribed. It’s better to guide them to access services from trained providers who will counsel them properly than to let them buy products from the roadside that may not even be safe.” Waziri stated.

These narratives reveal a pressing need for continued education and support for adolescent girls. By addressing poverty, protection, family upbringing, and the lack of sex education, communities can help young women lead healthier and more empowered lives.

Godiya reports that TCI is working in 9 LGAs and supporting 30 health facilities in the childbirth spacing program. However, these facilities often experience product stockouts, highlighting the need to upscale supplies.

She added “Ensuring availability of consumables so counseled clients can meet their appointments is crucial to maintaining their trust and commitment.”

CATAI Perspective

But a northeast based NGO, Center for Advocacy, Transparency and Accountability Initiative (CATAI) is scandalized by the idea of normalizing child birth spacing contraceptives to adolescents who are at best minors.

CATAI’s director, Abubakar Sadiq Muazu maintains that because life is composed of different stages providing contraceptives for young girls still in secondary school exploits their innocence. “First, they are below the age of 18, the legal age for making informed decisions about their lives. As an organization, we view such activities as abusive towards young girls. The focus should not be on providing them access to contraceptives but on prosecuting the perpetrators of their abuse to ensure they face the law.” Muazu stated.

The Child Right’s Act which has been adopted by Adamawa and 30 other states of the federation including the FCT provides that the age of consent is 18 and as such having sexual intercourse with a child is regarded as rape.

Section 7 of the sexual Offences Act bans sexual intercourse with anyone between the ages of 0 to 18 and punishes offenders with life imprisonment upon conviction.

Muazu believes that girls need protection and safe spaces to prevent exploitation and as such the issue at hand is not about providing contraceptives but addressing the root cause of abuse. Young girls who cannot make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health need protection within schools to ensure their safety. We advocate for the sensitization of young girls and communities to prevent abuse and encourage them to speak out about it.

A significant problem in our community is the reluctance to speak out about abuse. Therefore, we do not support providing contraceptives to young girls who are not adults. Adults are the ones capable of making informed decisions. Most cases involving young girls are not consensual.

Mu’azu’s position speaks to the fears conveyed by Jafu and Janet who carry the weight of insecurity effortlessly. These girls are forced to confront the harsh reality and uncertainty associated with the threat of rape that stares them in the face every other day.

Addressing abuse and bullying is a key to ensuring protection of girls and confidence building. “We have seen cases where young girls are abused and bullied by “shila boys” on their way to school. To combat this, our programming includes a lot of sensitization efforts around positive parenting. We invite caregivers, community leaders, and youth groups to sensitize them and encourage them to advocate for girls rather than abuse them. At the state level, there is positive movement in policy pronouncements, with efforts towards education such as free education and government initiatives to ensure girls complete school to the secondary level.”

The stories of teenage girls like Pamela, Zainab, and Suzan in Adamawa State underscores a profound shift towards empowerment through family planning. Their family planning journey is not just about preventing unplanned pregnancies, but about shaping their destinies despite societal challenges and stigma.  However, if 17-year-old Pamela’s family knew any better, her abuser now an absent father would have paid for his action and not the other way round. As communities and policymakers continue to support comprehensive sex education and accessible healthcare services, there is a pressing need to protect girls from the normalized sexual abuse they face.

This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under the Champion Building component of its Report Women! News and Newsroom Engagement project.


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