SANKWALA, CROSS RIVER - On September 20, 2022, seven young mothers who became pregnant between ages 12 and 16 stood before dozens of students inside a small hall amid heavy emotions - laughter, cheers, cries, and jokes.
The ceremony at Sankwala Community Secondary School in Obanliku Local Government Area of Cross River State marked the girls' first return to school after pregnancy, with each receiving a free back-to-school pack.
For some of the teen mums, the gathering was historic because they had lost every hope of ever returning to school when they got pregnant unintended.
"I was afraid about what would happen, and I felt embarrassed and almost ran away," said Mary Kutogbene, who got pregnant in 2020 at age 12 and now dreams of becoming a medical doctor.
"Everybody knows everyone's business in this village, and I know girls who stopped school after getting pregnant and never returned. I felt that was going to be my case."
Her fears were not unfounded. A study titled "Outcome of Teenage Pregnancy in the Niger Delta of Nigeria" - published in the National Library of Medicine - shows that most pregnant adolescents in Nigeria's Niger Delta region, where Kutogbene's Cross River is, are likely to stop schooling.
Reasons include hard economic conditions, being rejected by their schools and family, and fear of being shamed at school.
Of Nigeria's 10 million out-of-school girls, the federal government says about 15% is due to teenage pregnancy. Often, dropping out of school due to pregnancy dims a girl's prospects for economic opportunities and good livelihood.
Besides, pregnancy and delivery during adolescence can negatively affect a girl's health and transition to adulthood, self-esteem and perception from family, peers, and community members, which could affect her mental health.
"I used to stay up at night and cry, and I couldn't eat. They were days I woke up praying it was a dream," Kutogbene told Prime Progress.
'Children taking care of children'
Like Kutogbene, Sandra Okem from Kukare, Kutogbene's village, one of several that form Sankwala community, was barely 16 when she had her child in 2019.
"The whole thing was new to me - taking care of the baby, feeding myself and the baby." OKem, now 19, said.
Teenagers having babies is like "children taking care of their children," said Kebe Ikpi, the Cross River State coordinator of Child's Protection Network, a network of nonprofits and government agencies working to protect children from abuse.
He blamed the alarming rate of teenage pregnancy, which he puts at 26% in Cross River, on people's reluctance to report sexual abuse to the police due to fear of stigmatisation.
"What will the community say, or what will her friends think? Now she [pregnant teen] tries to hide the pregnancy, which makes her leave school, and when she gives birth, everyone moves on, and she is left to look after a child," Ikpi says.
A second chance
Once in late 2020, Favour Abatang, a business development consultant and National Gender Youth Activist with UN Women Nigeria, travelled from Calabar, the Cross River State capital, to Bayanung, her community in Obanliku, for holidays. While there, she met several teen mums.
"I was shocked by the sight of these girls all over the place and with everyone acting as if it was normal," she said. "I could tell that for many of them, their life of dreaming and going to school was over, and I immediately knew I needed to do something about it."
Abatang then put together a team of five young volunteers who combed the communities in Obaliku, looking for teen mums and liaising with community leaders on getting them back to school. They found 25 girls.
For close to one year, her group, now called Campus Babe Initiative, held one-on-one sessions a few times monthly with the teen mums on the need to return to school, consulted with their families, and held awareness campaigns in schools in the communities. They talked to students about the dangers of adolescent pregnancy and discouraged discrimination and stigmatisation against teen mums and pregnant teens.
Amid the awareness campaign, Abatang took to social media last year requesting support in cash, menstrual pads, and writing materials to help the girls journey back to school. Fortunately, they got some positive responses, and she started sending the teen mums back to school in batches.
"It is not enough to return these girls to school; we have to ensure that other girls are armed with the right information not to fall on this path," Abatang said. "We also had to talk to other students and, of course, the teachers about the need to treat the teenage mums with dignity and not make them feel awkward."
Another reason why this year's event at Sankwala Community Secondary School was important is that it was the first time Campus Babe would organise a formal ceremony celebrating the return of a batch of girls to school.
Before the enrolment, there were questions about who takes care of the babies when their mothers are in school. Abatang's team convinced some of the young mums' parents to look after the babies.
"There were others we needed to talk to other relatives too. In the end, everyone understood that they all could play a part in raising these girls to be people the community will be proud of," she said.
Besides, Campus Babe has reached more than 2000 secondary school students in Obanliku and Obudu local government areas with information on age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health and girls' right to education through visitation to their schools and workshops.
However, the initiative has met resistance in some communities.
"We were challenged by some men in the communities who saw the girls as objects available to them. They raised their voices at us during the community engagement sessions," Abatang said. "I am aware these persons are still around, and we are extra vigilant when we get to the communities."
Also, "Sourcing for their fees through public donations has been tough as the response could be slow," she admits. Abatang said the group is looking for potential corporate partners because the goal is to sponsor more teen mums through secondary to the university level.
Meanwhile, back at Sankwala Community Secondary School, after receiving her back-to-school pack, Kutogbene and other teen mums posed for a photo with Abatang, the joy on their faces visible.
"I will take this chance and make my family and community proud of me," Kutogbene giggled. "I am taking this as a challenge to show them (Campus Babe) that helping me is not a waste."
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.