Breaking taboos and empowering girls in Nigeria

November 24, 2023
Two women in black tee shirts laughing

Xari Africa provides free access to quality resources on Sexual and Reproductive Health education to empower adolescent girls in Nigeria.

Photo: Xari Africa

Condoms, pads, menstruation, abortion—these are words I can comfortably type out as I attempt to write this blog from the comfort of my room, but will most likely be met with scorn if spoken aloud in the streets of northern Nigeria. Growing up in this region meant witnessing girls my age drop out of high school, either because they were married off as child brides, or became pregnant and unable to continue their education. It’s a cycle that has persisted for decades, mostly due to the shame imposed on women by tradition, culture, religion or societal expectations. 

I experienced my first period during high school. The unexpected cramps and the embarrassment of stained uniforms were quite overwhelming. I found myself in the dark, with no one – not my parents, teachers, or even my older sister – guided me through this natural and beautiful transition into womanhood.

Many years and countless periods later, this is still the case of many young girls across Nigeria and Africa at large. Walking through the transition from girl to woman was scary, lonely, and uncomfortable and I am sure no girl should ever have to do it alone. 

Since my 19th birthday, I took it upon myself to begin visiting schools to teach girls about menstruation as some sort of ‘birthday tradition’. What started as a personal initiative evolved into an organization called XariAfrica, dedicated to breaking the taboo around Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) through education and awareness for the past six years. In 2021, we published “Just Period It”, as a practical guide to understanding periods. This book has empowered over 1,000 girls, teaching them to calculate their menstrual cycles and has become mandatory reading in two high schools in my region. Through initiatives like the ‘Annual School Tour’, we’ve reached over 5,000 girls with sexual health education and then we launched XariAfrica Academy, the first SRHR online academy in Africa, hosting a library of resources for everyone, everywhere. Our journey continues to be driven by the belief that no girl should navigate this transition alone.

Woman standing shows pamphlet to seated girls

Xari Africa’s resources are designed to be practical and actionable, with clear steps and guidance to help young girls learn and become the catalyst of change their communities.

Photo: Xari Africa

“Why do you care? Why all this?" I've been asked this question  more than I can count. These questions are often raised by men who cannot understand why girls can’t just “woman up” and “wing it”. They say; “Wear a pad and move on with your life”. Instead of berating those who ask, I always take it as an opportunity for enlightenment. 

At XariAfrica, the impact of the work we are doing extends beyond girls simply knowing about which sanitary product is best--pads, cups, or tampons. True empowerment lies in providing them the ability and autonomy to make informed decisions about their own lives and bodies. Indeed, knowledge is power.

Girls have lost their lives due to unsafe abortion, driven by shame that prevented them from seeking help or discussing their pregnancies. Others have contracted and spread STDs and STIs because they were unaware of contraceptives options. Some girls have even been forced to drop out of school and marry at an early age because they lacked knowledge on ovulation cycle and contraceptive methods which resulted in unwanted pregnancies. 

I believe that by normalizing conversations with parents, teachers, religious leaders and community figures, about seemingly minor issues like menstruation and sex, we are able to kickstart conversations about significant issues such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, and systemic patriarchy.

Group of girls in school uniform

Efe Johnson with members from Xari Africa and a group of high school students in Nigeria.

Photo: Xari Africa

The lack of access to SRHR is a direct infringement on the rights of girls and often leads to other issues, including gender based violence. When girls feel a sense of safety to openly talk about their bodies, they often open up and talk about more profound experiences, such as acts of violence that they wouldn’t have shared with anyone else. In this case, silence becomes both enemy and an enabler.

While Xari Africa may not be fully equipped to handle all cases of rape and abuse that surface, we serve as the initial point of communication and a safe space for girls. Subsequently, we connect them with relevant authorities and organizations better equipped to provide rehabilitation.

On this international day of Eliminating Violence Against Women, I am sending a reminder that sexual and reproductive health in all its forms is everybody’s responsibility. We must start by breaking the stigma around natural phenomena and harmful practices, giving freedom, autonomy and equipping women and girls to speak up for themselves. 

Girls who can openly discuss menstruation become individuals who can also speak out against rape, physical and sexual abuse, female genital nutilation, and gender-based violence in any form. They evolve into advocates and empowered individuals within their society, serving as a source of strength and inspiration for others. By breaking the silence on seemingly taboo topics, young girls can contribute to fostering a culture of openness, understanding, and resilience, creating a ripple effect that extends far beyond the realm of reproductive health.