As a student majoring in neuroscience and behavior at university, Manre Chirtau was sure she was going to be a doctor. But an internship at the organization Education as a Vaccine (EVA) changed the course of her career.
EVA is a youth-led and youth-focused organization that improves the health and development of children and young people. Working on programs that advance sexual and reproductive health and help prevent HIV, Manre soon decided that medicine was not the only field where she could have an impact. “I realized that I didn’t have to be a doctor to help young people and influence their health.” She stayed on at EVA, and eight years later, leads its capacity-building and advocacy team.
EVA was created in 2000, when misinformation about HIV and AIDS was rampant in Nigeria. The founders had conducted research revealing that a majority of young people lacked the basic life skills necessary to prevent infection. EVA was established to fill this information gap and to provide youth with the knowledge and skills they need to lead healthy lives.
In the years since, EVA and other groups have made significant improvements in raising young people’s awareness and education on sexual and reproductive health and in the quality of these services. But girls and young women in Nigeria still confront challenges on multiple levels. “I recently became an aunt and have a little niece.
I’ve been thinking about the difference between her and my grandmother,” Manre reflected. “Yes, there has been a lot of progress in Nigeria, we can’t deny that; my niece will have better access to education and health care than my grandmother did. But there’s still so much more work to be done.” Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of maternal mortality, and many young women die as a result of clandestine, unsafe abortions.
As a youth advocate, Manre speaks regularly about these issues, and her reach continues to expand. She participated in IWHC’s Advocacy in Practice workshops, and this spring presented on a panel at the United Nations, a side event of the Commission on the Status of Women. She highlighted the need for youth-focused and youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services in Nigeria and for empowering young girls.
She mentioned the recent case of a 13-year-old girl in Nigeria who poisoned her husband, hoping that the story would open people’s eyes to the harsh realities young girls face. Child marriage is common, and even increasing in some areas of Nigeria, though there are laws against it. “The conversation around child marriage shouldn’t get muted—we should continue to discuss and address it,” she said after the event.
For advocates like Manre, the challenge is to keep these issues front and center. While international media shone a spotlight on the plight of adolescent girls in Nigeria after the Chibok kidnapping last year, attention seems to be fading and political will remains limited.
But Manre is hopeful about change in Nigeria with its newly elected president. And after meeting with other youth and women’s advocates from throughout Africa at the UN, Manre expressed optimism about their potential to mobilize and join forces to improve sexual and reproductive health across the continent. “If we unite, we are a stronger force,” she said. “It’s about time the narrative changes: of Africa being one of the regions holding the world back in terms of development. If we continue to be portrayed in this manner, that’s what people are going to get.”
Manre underscores the human rights angle to her work—that we shouldn’t be supporting young women and girls only because it makes sense from an economic or public health standpoint. “We need to see women and girls as more than agents of development, but as human beings that deserve those rights.”
Her own path to becoming an advocate suggests options are expanding for young women in Nigeria. “There are a lot more girls taking on a feminist identity now,” she noted. “Girls used to only dream of being wives and mothers, but now many girls dream of what career they want.”
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