Nigeria, like most of the world, is grappling with its existence within this new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In my mind’s eye, I always imagined that in a pandemic, I would be hurdled up in some underground cave seeking shelter but alas, here I am spending all my time in virtual meetings and constantly sanitizing.
We are in the 21st century and this is the 21st century’s response to a pandemic.
In that regard, it is important to understand how the pandemic is affecting the real “owners” of the 21st century- Adolescents.
The United Nations classifies people 10-19 years of age as adolescents. Adolescents are often overlooked in times of crises because there is a false assumption that they will make it through, after all they are in the most virile phase of the human lifecycle.
Unfortunately, this is a dangerous assumption because adolescents really are the crux of this pandemic.
Scientists have told us that it will take at least a decade to overcome the impact of this pandemic and by then most of us who are adults now will be gone leaving this important demographic group with the numerous fallouts of the pandemic.
The pandemic has resulted in prolonged isolation, constant uncertainty and abrupt cessation of their social support system.
This can be a very crippling experience for a group that thrives on regular communal exchange therefore, a significant number of them are experiencing a variety of mental health issues ranging from anxiety, depression to suicidal intent. In Nigeria, most people would call this a “big man” problem.
Unfortunately, it is this kind of backward thinking that pushes young people into harmful behaviors because as a society we are yet to evolve to a point where feelings of despair and discouragement can be freely expressed without being mocked or ridiculed.
The result of which is the rising number of suicidal attempts and deaths of adolescents across different socio-economic strata in the country.
This period has also brought to the fore a silent pandemic that is ravaging the lives of our adolescent girls, and even boys – gender-based violence.
The forced confinement brought about by the lockdowns has further exposed young girls to their perpetrators who are often not strangers but individuals they interact with regularly.
This situation has led to the rape and violation of many young girls and the staggering numbers we have seen in the media is a minor glimpse of the true picture.
Most of these girls will never report the incident because in Nigeria, the social and cultural norms surrounding rape are not favorable to the victims.
The few of them who are brave enough to report have limited access to support services as there are few Sexual Assault Referral Centers across the country and even where these centers exist, issues around consent and financial support are challenges young people encounter in accessing care.
Another major fallout of this pandemic has been the overwhelming economic hardship being faced by numerous families, especially those in the lower social economic strata.
In this regard, some adolescents have been compelled to engage in several forms of manual labor to supplement family income.
These conditions of lack have also increased their risk for sexual exploitation as I have interacted with some of them who have been lured into sexual acts in exchange for money to buy basic needs such as sanitary towels, medication and even food.
The consequence of these actions is an increase in their risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections, HIV as well as having unplanned pregnancies because majority of these acts are unprotected.
Lastly, for some adolescents, the indefinite closure of schools goes beyond the loss in a school year or the ability to acquire knowledge, it translates more into the loss of a safety net against early marriage and its adverse outcomes.
Nigeria has the third highest absolute number of child-brides globally and research shows that the enforcement of girl-child education is the most effective strategy to curb it.
With the indefinite closure of schools, parents have no reason to desist from arranging these marriages as it also serves as a means of income-generation during these difficult times.
Therefore, it is not unexpected that the number of young girls being married off early is slowly peaking again.
It is critical that our society and government entities in particular, pay attention to some of these issues and put in place structures to address them.
It could range from simple initiatives such as a help-line to cater to the psychological and counselling needs of young people, youth-friendly reporting mechanisms for victims of gender based violence to more complex structures uniquely tailored to provide financial support for adolescents as well as indigent families inclined to engage in child marriage.
As a country with one of the largest youth populations in the world, it is essential that these challenges are addressed promptly because we need a healthy generation to cross-over into the COVID-19 free world.
Dr Momah-Haruna is a International Development Expert specializing in Child and Adolescent Health & Development