Many women still find it difficult accessing essential sexual and reproductive health and rights services. In this interview, Munkeng Shambo, one of YNCSD’s youth champions talks about how she came to support women’s rights, and the discriminations faced by women and girls in areas of sexual and reproductive health and rights concerns.
Tell us about yourself
My name is Munkeng P. Shambo. I am a 22-year old legal practitioner from Taraba State.
I am passionate about women’s rights and I have been for a few years now. My journey into being an SRHR advocate began while I was in secondary school. I have always looked out for ways to lend my voice to issues affecting women while working to provide solutions that significantly improve the lives of women and girls.
How did you come to be passionate about women’s rights?
As I said earlier, the awareness started while I was still in secondary school.
As a girl, you easily begin to notice the little ways that society discriminates against women.
Back in school, I would notice that my male counterparts were provided more allowances than I was. Girls were not allowed to do so many things that the boys did and I slowly came to realise that these biases were based on gender.
As I got older, I began to see it play out in bigger ways in the society. I saw that there were bigger issues that women faced as a result of their gender. And so, I began to pay attention. Social media helped me a lot especially because I got to connect with the feminist movement. I was able to identify with feminism and it helped me see deeper issues that women and girl faced and to identify innovative ways of addressing the situation. Since then, I have remained dedicated to the cause.
Falling back on the discriminations that women face, do you think that some of these discriminations play out in sexual and reproductive rights issues?
I do. It is why I am interested in branching out into this aspect of human and women’s rights.
In my opinion, women take on a lot of responsibility and serve as carers. Women are the ones who get pregnant. So, it only makes sense that we are included in conversations about our bodies. Women should be the ones to decide what they want to do with their bodies: whether they want to keep a pregnancy or carry it full term. However, this is not usually the case.
A woman’s body is hers and she should be free to explore options based on her choice. These are some of the reasons why I am interested in conversation about women’s sexual and reproductive rights. SRHR is a huge part of women’s rights and it affects women all over the world.
What are the major problems with accessing SRHR around you?
These problems stem from the restrictive abortion laws that we have in Nigeria. These restrictive laws also restrict the SRHR services made available to many women and girls.
There are no planned parenthood clinics where women and girls can explore options available to them if they do not want to carry a pregnancy to term. Women and girls cannot confidently walk into a clinic or hospital and ask to end a pregnancy especially when it is not life-threatening to them. A lot of women and girls cannot even access proper counselling to help them decide what is best for their reproductive and sexual health.
That is why many of these women, eventually seek backdoor methods to end pregnancies. If you look around, you will find that many women and girls seek pregnancy termination pills most of which are not even prescribed. Many of them take these pills based on hearsay or from the misinformation gotten from their friends. This exposes them to several risks.
So, due to existing restrictive laws, women cannot freely express their reproductive rights, thus posing a huge problem especially because accurate information is hindered in the process.
It’s the same for sexual health. An average young woman cannot walk into a clinic or medicine store to get contraceptives without being shamed or feeling ashamed. This stems from our culture and the ‘purity culture’ in the society, that is forced upon women from the time they are young girls. Many women who try to access contraceptives get asked funny questions like “are you married?” or “where is your husband?” It usually degenerates into a session on avoiding promiscuity which is quite invasive into the woman’s privacy.
Tell us a little about what you know of the restrictive laws in Nigeria?
As mentioned during the YNCSD youth champion induction, the criminal code and the penal code of Nigeria. criminalises abortion. Still, these laws are ambiguous.
Religion and culture also cause a lot of restrictions. Nigeria is a very religious and cultural society and these two factors cause a lot of discriminations for women and girls. Men and boys are not held to the same sexual standards that women and girls are.
There is stigma around providing SRH services to young girls, because people see it as encouraging girls to have sex. The same goes for providing information around sex education or teaching girls and women about family planning or even about their bodies.
Do you think that CSE has a role to play in reducing unsafe abortions?
Absolutely. One of the statements I remember from the induction ceremony was “the goal is for a world where every pregnancy is planned”. If this were made possible, it would be amazing.
This is where CSE comes in. A lot of mistakes that young people make are as a result of misinformation or total lack of knowledge, and these speak to the poor sexual education that young people have. Young people are not well-informed about STDs/STIs or safe sex. There’s poor information regarding being sexually active. CSE also teaches consent and many other things about bodily autonomy.
So, if people are made aware of all of these things, I believe that there will be significant reductions in unplanned or unintended pregnancies and consequently, in unsafe abortions.
What led you to becoming prochoice?
There was no defining moment for me. Again, I’m a feminist and so, once I started having these conversations around abortion, there was no doubt in my mind that women should have the right to decide what they want to do with their bodies.
I think a part of me has always been totally aligned with everything that the prochoice movement supports.
What challenges have you faced with being prochoice or advocating access to safe abortions in a country with strict legal restrictions on abortion?
I usually only face challenges when I share my views with people who are not prochoice. They make it seem like you’re supporting murder and encouraging promiscuity in the society. It’s usually a lot of verbal attacks and people talking down on my views.
I’ve had a lot of productive sessions though, where I have meaningful arguments with people who are more open-minded and we listen to our different views. I’ve found that a lot of antichoice arguments fall back on religion. So, because of religious beliefs, people are less willing to support prochoice arguments.
On the other side, I have people who fall back on the law and we have already established that these laws are restrictive and ambiguous. Even doctors who are prochoice are stifled by the law and are scared of providing abortion services based on the law. My suggestion is that the scope of the law on abortion needs to be expanded.
What lessons stand out for you as an SRHR advocate?
A major lesson for me as an advocate is that there is a lot of power in having conversations. We can use our voices to have conversations with young people so that they know the best decisions to make.