NIGERIA – The relationship between customary and religious laws and a range of sexual and reproductive health outcomes

Numerous countries have committed themselves to promoting the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls by ratifying international human rights treaties. These include the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Nigeria ratified the convention on women’s rights in 1985 and the convention on child rights in 1991. But sexual and reproductive health among women and girls in Nigeria remains poor. The country has the second largest HIV epidemic in the world. It also has persistently high rates of maternal and perinatal mortality. In 2013, Nigeria accounted for about 14% of the global burden of maternal mortality. Nigeria also has high rates of unsafe abortion (approximately 33 unsafe abortions per 1000 women of reproductive age), and low levels of contraceptive use. Approximately 24% of women in Nigeria have reported ever experiencing intimate partner violence.

In multiple countries, customary and religious laws have been found to uphold practices that discriminate against women and undermine gender equality. Customary and religious laws have been linked to high rates of child marriage, decreased female autonomy, and limited access to justice for women and girls.

Previous studies have not directly examined the relationship between customary and religious laws and a range of sexual and reproductive health outcomes. This study, published in PLOS One in 2019,
found that a clear relationship exists between these laws and outcomes. Nigeria’s plural legal system appears to drive poor health outcomes. The authors suggest there is a need to harmonise customary and civil laws so as to promote access to health.

Some states in Nigeria follow customary and religious laws, such as Sharia laws, while others do not. Hence, the study compared each state’s health indicators in relation to state laws. The study found that northern Nigerian states with customary and religious laws had significantly worse sexual and reproductive health outcomes compared to southern Nigerian states without such laws. The outcomes were worse in terms of getting antenatal care, use of contraception among married women, births delivered in a health facility, total fertility rate, and median age at first birth. It also found that customary and religious laws directly conflict with international human rights commitments.

Even when the study accounted for the differential wealth between the states as a factor, the difference to sexual and reproductive health was still significant. For example, the 22 percentage point difference in contraceptive use between the two groups of states remained an estimated 16 percentage point difference after accounting for per capita gross domestic product.

Unfortunately, the PLOS ONE paper does not compare unsafe abortion rates as it does other aspects of SRH outcomes.

SOURCE: The Conversation, by Eka Williams, 11 February 2021 ; Association between plural legal systems and sexual and reproductive health outcomes for women and girls in Nigeria: a state-level ecological study, by Terry McGovern, Monique Baumont, Rachel Fowler, Valentina Parisi, Sonia Haerizadeh, Eka Williams, Samantha Garbers. PLOS One, 9 October 2019  (Open access)
PHOTO at Infoguide Nigeria, undated