Margaret Bolaji, a youth activist for girls’ health and rights in Northern Nigeria, is kicking off GHN’s new Q&A series to highlight the efforts of the 2016 120 Under 40 leaders. The program, organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, shines a light on the “positive disruptions” made by young leaders in family planning.
Margaret, a 2016 winner of 120 Under 40: The New Generation of Family Planning Leaders, is a fierce advocate for the idea that there is a strong linkage between education and sexual and reproductive health. She serves as the youth seat representative on FP2020’s Reference Group, and is vice president of the UNFPA Youth Advisory Group.
You have become a well-known advocate for youth involvement in family planning. Why did you decide to get involved in family planning, and focus on youth specifically?
My profound interest in working with the most marginalized young people has led me to work with adolescent girls for over 5 years in the rural communities of Nigeria, where I mentor and tutor young people in safe spaces. These girls have dreams, but these dreams are cut short due to unplanned pregnancies. Some girls even lose their lives needlessly.
What led you to zero in on the importance of educating girls to reach family planning goals? How are you helping them?
When girls are educated, they are more likely to practice healthy and safe sexual behaviors and make informed decisions about their health. I mentor adolescent girls from rural communities on literacy, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and life skills in safe spaces—usually the homes of religious and community leaders—and schools to empower them to take charge of their reproductive health.
You’ve mentioned the importance of working with men, too, to improve women’s access to family planning. What approaches have proved most successful with men, and do you see attitudes changing with the younger generations?
Meaningful involvement of male champions in rural communities greatly enhances the reproductive health rights and education of adolescent girls and ensures their healthy development. The collective engagement of male family planning champions also reinforces the social support that girls gain through our work in safe spaces. To encourage men and boys to get involved, I organize community dialogues, workshops and provide support to selected male champions in communities who in turn advocate to other males to embrace and promote girls access to SRHR. With better understanding of the benefits of girls' access to SRHR, there is increased community buy-in and acceptance leading to behavioral changes across generations.
As vice president of the UNFPA Youth Advisory Group, what opportunities do you have to address the family planning and reproductive health priorities of young people in your community, and in communities around the world?
I work to ensure that the priorities and perspectives of youth are reflected in UNFPA programs by shining a spotlight on the unique needs of young people and adolescents in my community. I also mobilize my peers to hold government and relevant stakeholders accountable to their commitments made to enhance youth access to family planning.
In Nigeria specifically, what challenges do youth face when it comes to family planning/reproductive health?
In Nigeria, we have policy barriers that prevent young people from accessing the resources they need to plan their families. Also, the few youth-friendly services available are not evidence-based, and do not meet context-specific needs (differences in sex, age, marital status or parity) and do not include a full range of methods. There are also not enough trainings and supervision programs that effectively address medical and personal providers’ biases regarding young people’s use of all available contraceptives.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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