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Sex Education in Nigeria: The Great Taboo

As a young secondary school student, I benefitted a lot from subjects like social studies, and physical and health education, which ensured that I was aware of common issues in Nigeria, such as human trafficking, female genital mutilation and the abuse of widows. I was grateful for such knowledge, but it was only when I started studying abroad that I realised, “What about sex?”. I had learnt about HIV and AIDS in a rigid, scientific manner as a mandatory part of the curriculum; however, awareness of sexual anatomy and appropriate sexual behaviour - a key part of sexual education - was neglected.


The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention classes HIV as an epidemic in Nigeria. According to their 2015 figures, the disease maintains a 3.1% prevalence among adults (aged 15-49), with AIDS-related deaths estimated at 180,000. Based on these figures, it is clear that the youth are amongst the most affected by the virus nationwide. Although there are many factors that play a role in this figure, one which continues to contribute to this growing number is the absence of adolescent sex education as part of the school curriculum.

The cultural stigma

Concern regarding sex education is not a new development in Nigeria. A 2003 survey in Ile-Ife, a city in Southwestern Nigeria, showed that 15.4% of respondents opposed to its introduction in secondary schools. Many residents who held this view believed that introducing sex education to curriculums “might lead to experimentation and that it should be the responsibility of the parents at home.” Similar attitudes were shown in a separate study carried out in Enugu, the capital of Enugu state in Southeastern Nigeria. A recent campaign by the National Association of Proprietors of Private Public Schools also echoes this outlook, with its immediate past president, Mrs Olubukola Dosunmu, remarking that “It is a collective responsibility to ensure we work against comprehensive sexual education in schools.”

From the above-shared apprehension towards sex education shown by citizens across the country, one can conclude that the opposition stems from the belief that teaching young people about sex will motivate them to engage in the activity. It draws on the fears of numerous parents and educators alike that it promotes a promiscuous lifestyle, allows for the abandonment of traditional morals and sets adolescents up for possible physical and emotional harm.

However, this is not necessarily the case. As best put by an article in the African Journal of Social Sciences on this issue - “Sexuality education simply means the presentation of every aspect of the sexuality of an individual exactly as it is, and equipping the individual with all options there are to enhance a better understanding of sexuality in its holistic manner. This ensures a proper understanding of an individual’s identity as well as his total view of sexuality as it concerns religious beliefs, ethics, rules and regulations.”

The methods

An underage wife carrying her child (Source: Ventures Africa)

Sex education relates to a wide variety of topics, for example, safe sex, abstinence, the anatomy, emotional relationships and responsibilities of partners. It is important to realise that teaching sex education in schools does not necessarily mean adopting select methods occasionally used when the subject taught in Western countries, which are publicised as somewhat unconventional. An example of this is the methods used in “The Sex Education Show” and its screening in classes by teachers as an aid when teaching the subject. Direct, honest and interactive; the show has brought a new way of teaching young people about sex. However, this does not mean that there will suddenly be an arrival of live nude models in sex education classes up and down Nigeria if the subject is allowed to be taught in schools. It is important to realise that such methods are appropriately managed by teachers and have been used with parental consent. They are simply one approach to take on this issue.

Furthermore, an identical structure of the subject does not need to be introduced, as every country has specific issues in relation to this overall area that are more critical. Yes, sexual education does mean teaching basic sexual anatomy and proper sexual conduct. However, it also means directly addressing issues such as HIV and AIDS, female genital mutilation, rape and child marriage, which are also issues of a sexual nature. Issues, which despite the intervention of both government agencies and NGOs, still need to be combatted at a grassroots level.

Sexual education and at-risk sexual behaviour

Given the prevalent unfavourable attitudes towards the subject, it can be said that many Nigerians doubt the effectiveness of sex education. This leads to general deliberation among the populace as to whether sex education at its core acts more as a form of advertising sex or as a method of enlightenment and awareness regarding sexual topics.

A small-scale study carried out in Ilorin, the capital city of Kwara State in Nigeria, aimed to answer this question by investigating how sex education affected the at-risk sexual behaviour of adolescents. Results showed that participants in the intervention group, when compared to their peers, showed “changes in attitude, increases in sexuality knowledge and a relative decrease in at-risk sexual activity compared to the control group.” Researchers discovered that “the level of adolescents' understanding of human sexuality limited their ability to make informed decisions.” Applying principles of social learning such as observation and modeling brought about the most positive responses. This concept highlights interactive learning and engagement to be more effective than traditional dictation of scientific facts.

Similar studies evaluating the effect of sex education across the globe support this idea, with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs extracting data from 73 of such studies to assess the overall impact on sexual behaviour. The studies collectively indicate that sex education programs actually lead to more responsible sexual behaviour such as a decrease in number of sexual partners. The discussion of the use of contraceptives and about STD’s were also proven not increase sexual behaviour among youth which contradicts opinions held by concerned adults.

The media

Characters Mary and Aunty Lillian from Shuga discuss sex and are getting tested (Source: MTV Shuga)

Gradually, changing attitudes and greater media exposure has led to more widespread youth awareness of the nature of sex. Educational entertainment shows such as MTV’s Shuga TV series, which tackles issues such as safe sex, living with HIV, sexual assault and other related issues that directly impact the youth, have gained wide viewership, with its third season reaching over 500 million viewers worldwide according to World Bank Group. Additionally, such shows provide necessary preliminary information, contact information and use interactive techniques for young people to both seek advice and evaluate the choices made by the characters like they would do in a lesson at school.

The future

Nevertheless, the best way to ensure that all young people get accurate information about the reality of sex, and for parents to remain aware of what is occurring in their children’s lives, is through open discussion. Gaining knowledge directly from people you can trust to be honest and reliable, such as doctors, parents and educators, ensures a clear understanding of the true nature of such sensitive and personal issues. One way to start this dialogue and connect the various parties together, creating a network for young people to openly discuss sexual issues in a safe atmosphere, is through the mandatory teaching of sex education in schools. When freed from personal and cultural stigmas, sex education can have positive impacts on the youth in their personal lives, and aggregating such impacts can lead to productive outcomes for wider society.

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