Dorothy Aken’ova is improving reproductive health indices in Nigeria by challenging its culture of silence and intolerance around sexuality and sexual diversity. She is calling for sexual pleasure to be included in the discourse on reproductive health at the community and national levels.
The New Idea
Dorothy believes that current reproductive health discourse is too clinical and fails to recognize that its primary subjects are humans with rights and complex personalities and physiologies. As a result the emotional and psychological aspects of sexuality are ignored, and sexuality is treated as problematic. This reinforces the culture of silence that promotes social intolerance of sexual experiences, sexual rights, and sexual minorities. It also ignores the impact of emotional and psychological sexual dysfunction on reproductive health. Worried by the reluctance of existing reproductive health programs to address sexual rights and sexual pleasure in their methodology as well as the culture of silence that surrounds sexuality, Dorothy set up her own organization to implement sexuality education courses that incorporate sexual rights and the right to sexual pleasure in the syllabus. Dorothy believes that teaching sexuality education from a perspective of sexual rights will engage more people and make it easier for them to accept behavioral changes associated with safe sex. Her methodology encourages tolerance for sexual minorities, open and honest communication between intimate partners, value for different genders, and respect for the rights of vulnerable groups. By advocating for and teaching about an individual’s sexual rights Dorothy is helping women and marginalized groups protect their sexuality from exploitation and abuse. She is also helping couples achieve greater stability and satisfaction within their relationships, leading to reductions in intimate partner abuse.
Sexuality education for young people and adults is presented in pessimistic and often sinister terms. Emphasis is placed on the morbidity associated with sexual activity such as sexually transmitted diseases and infections (STIs), teenage pregnancy and, of course, the possibility of HIV/AIDS infection. This has the effect of problematizing sexuality as something that is essentially ‘bad’ and undesirable, and thus reinforcing conservative attitudes towards sexuality that restrict the space for open dialogue and behavioral change. Such a negative focus on sexuality strengthens the prevailing culture of silence that is further supported by a global upsurge in religious fundamentalism and authoritarian rule. The culture of silence on issues of sexuality and reproduction cuts across all ethnic groups in Nigeria. As a result, a majority of people are uncomfortable discussing issues related to sexuality and reproduction. This leads to poor or complete absence of information on sexual and reproductive health and rights among Nigerians, including policy makers at all levels. These tendencies are further encouraged by international and local campaigns by conservatives that demonize the terms ‘sexual’ and ‘reproductive’ rights. These campaigns continue to frustrate efforts to put effective global policies on sexual and reproductive rights in place.Conservative and religious campaigns have also reinforced negative and sometimes confrontational attitudes among Nigerians towards information and education on reproductive and sexual health with devastating effects. Vulnerable groups, which include adolescents, women, and people living with disabilities, have been especially affected. In 2006 a female senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria tried to introduce a bill on women’s reproductive health aimed at reducing Nigeria’s maternal mortality and morbidity rates which are among the top ten globally. It was resisted by conservatives for legalizing abortion and encouraging promiscuity even though abortion was not mentioned even once within the text of the bill. Nigeria’s culture of silence has led to increased STI’s, violence against women, maternal mortality, and intolerance to minority groups with alternative sexual lifestyles including lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals (LGBTs). There has also been an exponential rise in HIV and STI infections among young people. Although the latest estimates from UNAIDS and WHO indicate HIV/AIDS prevalence has stabilized and new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa declined between 2001 and 2007, they still are the highest in the world, at 1.7 million in 2007 or more than 4,500 new infections per day. In Nigeria HIV prevalence has dropped to 5 percent. However, state prevalence rates vary from a low of 1.2 percent in some areas to as high as 12 percent in others. Overall, 13 of Nigeria's 36 states have an HIV prevalence over 5 percent. Compared with other age groups, HIV/AIDS prevalence is highest among young people between the ages of 20 and 24. Nigeria's STD/HIV Control estimates that over 60 percent of new HIV infections are in the 15 to 25 year-old age group. There has also been an alarming increase in the number of HIV positive children in recent years, 90 percent of whom contract the virus from their mothers. Even within the Nigerian’s women’s movement, there is reluctance to discuss sexual rights. Some of the most contentious debates within the movement arise from efforts by some to introduce unequivocal statements on protection of such rights. Furthermore, the exclusion of LGBT women and other vulnerable groups from the discourse on women’s rights encourages intolerance and victimization. Human rights abuses and violence against LGBTs are increasing all across the continent. In the meantime people living with disabilities are totally excluded from education, prevention, and care programming.
Feeling that the organized citizen sector had marginalized sexual health and sexual rights, Dorothy decided to introduce a new approach to sexual health education in Nigeria. She founded the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (INCRESE) to provide a different paradigm in sex education in Nigeria and advocate for the sexual rights of minority groups. The most innovative part of her approach is its focus on the introduction of sexual pleasure into the discourse around reproductive health. Her strategy has been to use discussion of safe sex in the context of HIV/AIDS as an entry point to introduce the concept of sexual pleasure. Her program still includes the regular subjects of sex education classes—anatomy, sexual response cycles, contraception, safe sex, and negotiation skills—but all this is build on the belief that sexual pleasure is a function of normal and safe sex practices, mutual respect, and open honest communication. Dorothy educates young people and adults about sex and sexuality through workshops and seminars. INCRESE conducts a 3-year training program for young people on sexual health and rights. More than 500 young people have benefitted from her training so far. At the end of their training they become peer educators and community advocates for sexual health and rights. Her training program aims to change young people’s views about themselves, sex, and gender. INCRESE also conducts adult sex education courses at the community level. In her adult classes there are elements designed to bring pleasure into a couple’s relationship in an immediate, direct way. One homework assignment for couples following a course on the sexual response cycle is to explore each others erogenous zones. Dorothy believes that the focus on pleasure increases a couple's commitment to safer sex and contraception and can even reduce domestic violence. She currently works with about 50 couples at weekly sessions and has worked with more than 200 since INCRESE was established in 2000. Dorothy’s work challenges negative religious stereotypes and even tough she works in a Muslim state governed by Sharia law, she has had enthusiastic support from local council members and other workers who see how her positive and respectful work increases knowledge and reduces sexually transmitted infections. Her work has also been quite well received among a growing number of groups, including church groups that cautiously appreciate her message. Her success has not been restricted to the educated or urban elite; she conducted her baseline study in three rural communities of different religious and ethnic mix. One was predominantly Christian of Gwari ethnic roots, one was predominantly Muslim of Gwari ethnic roots, and one was predominantly Muslim of Hausa and Gwari mixed ethnic roots. She finds that most people want to talk about sex responsibly and learn ways to increase both their sexual safety and pleasure. She has been invited to participate on several policymaking teams and is currently working with the Nigerian Action Committee on AIDS (NACA) to review the national HIV/AIDS response policy. Through her work Dorothy has engaged with a variety of other groups and causes. Her organization advocates to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and corporeal punishments for women accused of sexual offenses such as adultery under sharía law and for the LGBT community. INCRESE also organizes workshops on abortion, rape, and teen pregnancy, and most recently has run programs for people living with disabilities and widows who are exploited sexually by Nigeria’s patriarchal culture. Dorothy also established an underground network that brings bisexual and lesbian women together in a safe space where they can talk and support each other called IGONET (INCRESE Girls Only Network). INCRESE has five permanent staff and ten volunteers.
Dorothy is the only woman among six siblings, and she has always refusing to be treated differently than her brothers, ultimately insisting that she too would receive a university education. She chose to study French to reclaim a part of her maternal heritage; her mother was from French speaking Niger but relinquished her cultural identity when she married a Nigerian from a strongly patriarchal culture. While growing up, Dorothy noticed the absence of institutions poised to answer her emerging questions about sexuality and her mother’s vehement reluctance to talk about it. So Dorothy took matters into her own hands by educating herself; she soon became a resource for other young people with similar questions and organized discussion and support groups while in school. When she joined a women-focused citizen organization after working eight years at the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency, Dorothy found a platform to understand and articulate her experiences as a woman politically. Her work with the women’s organization revealed that responsible and honest sexual education was still lacking, and she became determined to find a solution.