Creating Safe Spaces for Sexual and Reproductive Health Education

It’s a scene right out of a movie: a hair salon where amidst manicures, pedicures, hair dryers and straighteners, women chat freely about things that matter to them; or a group of men at the barbershop cracking jokes and laughing, talking through a myriad of topics as they get their hair cut 

That is the atmosphere the Delivering Innovation in Self-Care (DISC) team re-created at a recent National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) camp in Nigeria. Convened three times a year, the NYSC seeks to involve Nigerian university graduates in the development of the country and to bring about national unity. Part of the process involves three-week camps that take place across the country’s 36 states, where young people are empowered with different skills.    

This year, as part of the DISC project, we set-up self-care lounges at the camps in Oyo and Kaduna states, where young women safely interacted with peers to learn more about sexual and reproductive health (SRH) products and servicesThe lounges, like a hair salon, offered a safe space for the young women, most of whom are potential new mothers or mothers looking to space their births. The manicures and pedicures helped to make them comfortable and talk openly about SRH, something they rarely do at school or at home. Many women we spoke to have very little knowledge about SRH, yet they are at an age where the decisions they make today are likely to influence the rest of their lives.  

Early research conducted by DISC is showing us that when it comes to SRH, women seek convenience and privacy and—even though they might not label it that way—power, the ability to make decisions for themselves. With that in mind, we’re positioning contraceptive self-injection as a product that offers women that convenience (since it’s injected only every three months), privacy (since a woman can self-inject in her home once she’s been trained) and, perhaps most importantly, power. At the camp, some women adopted it on the spotqualified providers taught them how to self-inject and gave them the information they needed to utilize it in the future. Others left with information and knowledge that will hopefully inform their future decision-making.  

While at the booth, women were also able to access counseling services and had the opportunity to openly discuss SRH and learn about a range of family planning options. We also trained a sub-set of peer ambassadors not only on SRH, but also on communication skills so that they can in turn share knowledge, information, and power with other women during the NYSC program and beyondThe DISC WhatsApp companiona digital health chatbot, proved to be the ideal segue for our ambassadors to link their peers with credible SRH information. At the camp, they were familiarized with the content and the operations of the digital tool so that they could train others on its use. 

After enrollment on the digital companion, women can use it whenever they need it. The ambassadors and their peers continue to share it. To date, DISC has seen over 3,000 people visiting the WhatsApp Companion landing page. 

Encouragingly, it was not just the women who wanted to learn about self-care and SRH. During our mass sensitization sessions at the camps, we found that the young men also wanted to be involved. 

A young man we interacted with during one of the sessions shared that his sister passed away while dealing with unplanned pregnancy complications as a result of poor SRH knowledge. He was devastated and did not want his other siblings to end up in the same situation. He, like many of the other men in the camp, shared their stories and expressed their interest in educating their peers on matters related to SRHThis enthusiasm on the part of men was heartening, and resonates with our approach at DISC, where we recognize that women do not exist in a vacuum and understand that she needs support from her partner, family, and community in order to exercise her voice and power and achieve her SRH goals.   

Over the yearswe have found ways to reach out to men in various communitiesIn Northern Nigeria, for example, men will often sit and chat at barbeque areas, known as ‘suya spots’, or tea stands known as mai-shayi’, by the neighborhood mosques in the evenings after prayers in their majalisa (age-grade)We’ve trained individuals within those close-knit groups to talk to their peers about family planning and SRH. In some instances, men even bring their wives so that they too can learnThese conversations open the door for larger and more influential groups to learn about SRH. 

Women make up 49% of the population in Nigeria. If they feel empowered to make the right decisions for themselves and their families, they can be a powerful force towards improving SRH outcomes in the country. And we’re likely to witness even better outcomes when we also engage men in the process.  Armed with knowledge and access, they can steer themselves and their peers in the right direction, and support their wives, sisters, and mothers. The NYSC camps is just one of several strategies we will be employing over the course of this project to reach women, and men, with the information and support they need to be the change agents of their own sexual and reproductive health.