While Nigeria was gearing up for the 2015 general elections, we took a bold step to involve youths of tertiary institutions in holding political post aspirants to their campaign promises, especially those promises that touched on the health of pregnant women and newborns.
In addition to that, we wanted the youths to engage the aspirants and demand prioritisation of maternal and newborn health development when they assume office.
The initiative took place in Bauchi, Kano and Ondo States, which are part of the States in Nigeria where we work.
In Bauchi State, we had 29 youths as participants, who later became MamaYe activists in that State. They were the best students who were nominated by their lecturers. Their lecturers were also interested in the idea, so they tagged along and provided guidance to the students afterwards.
Part of what spurred the interest of the students was the challenge we threw at them, when we asked them to participate in an essay competition by writing to the political post aspirants in their communities.
One of the students went as far as physically meeting the governorship aspirant who later won the election. While we cannot confirm if this contributed to the governor’s intention to unveil his agenda for the development of the health of mothers and babies in the State, we are proud to say that MamaYe was largely instrumental in the process.
But, before this happened, as part of our efforts to ensure accountability in the dispensation of policies on maternal and newborn health, we established what we call a State-led Accountability Mechanism (SLAM).
SLAM is made up of Evidence, Advocacy, Knowledge Management and Communication committees. The committees are to work together to achieve the purpose of ensuring that policy makers are accountable to the electorates, and that they use evidence to plan and make policies that will improve the health of pregnant women and newborns.
We also planned for the States to be in control of their SLAM and own it, which was why the Bauchi State Accountability Mechanism (BaSAM), was in charge of assessing the essay entries, judging and awarding prizes to the winners.
The awards took place on October 6, 2015 at the Nigeria Union of Journalists secretariat, Bauchi. It coincided with BaSAM’s meeting, where the BaSAM members called on the Governor, Mohammed A. Abubakar, to employ more midwives to work in every maternity ward in all the secondary health facilities to ensure skilled delivery at birth in the State.
BaSAM was more concerned about midwives and skilled birth attendants because in Bauchi State, patronage of skilled birth attendants for facility-based deliveries is very low. Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) 2013 indicated that only 16.9% of births in Bauchi State took place in the health facilities as against the national average of 35.8%.
The winner of the essay competition, Hadiza Ibrahim, a 300 level student of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University Teaching Hospital, Bauchi, also hinged with BaSAM in her essay on what the government must do to improve maternal and newborn health in the State.
Dr. Ashiru Abubakar, who was one of the first MamaYe youth champions in Nigeria, presented the essay competition prize for the first position. He told the youths to continue their advocacy for the survival of mothers and babies, and he encouraged them not to wait for, or expect any prizes or commendations before contributing to saving lives. He too had a feat to save lives, but while not expecting it, his name came to limelight for his efforts.
The State Secretary, Knowledge Management and Communication Committee of BaSAM, Bulak Afsa, in her address, told the gathering that the essay writing competition was to involve youths in positive engagement with political post aspirants in the 2015 electioneering campaigns. It was to give them the opportunity to add their voices to decision making instead of the usual involvement in electoral violence.
She further said that the youths were involved in the campaign for the development of maternal and newborn health (MNH), which was why their writing focused on making MNH a political priority on the agenda of those who would win in the elections.
This same approach has helped us to establish the sense of demanding health rights and accountability in the youths in Ondo and Kano States. In all the States, we have engaged more than 300 students, involved more than 20 lecturers, and numerous numbers of journalists, CSOs and NGOs.
We are proud that we now have youths who are actively and positively participating in decision making on the development of maternal and newborn health. We have also put plans in place to ensure the growth in number of youths who would take action to ensure that pregnant women and newborn survive.
It is quite interesting that the youths will go on in life to raise families knowing that they can ask the right questions about their health, and demand their health rights from policy makers.
We are in an era of making every pregnancy safe, making every newborn survive and changing Nigeria from being the country with the second highest number of maternal and infant deaths, to being one of the safest places where any woman can survive pregnancy, and any newborn can survive birth.