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Last Updated: Monday, 26 September 2005, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Challenging Nigeria's sexual taboos
The BBC World Service "I Challenge" series looks at individuals around the world who have challenged authority, traditions and beliefs in the face of enormous odds.

Here, Dorothy Aken'Ova, a Nigerian sexual health worker, tells the BBC's Linda Pressly how sex education can help reduce domestic violence and discrimination in her country.

Dorothy Aken'Ova, Nigerian sexual health worker
Dorothy believes in the importance of teaching sexual pleasure
In her office in Minna, northern Nigeria, Dorothy Aken'Ova breezily unlocks the door to an inner store room. Inside, next to hefty academic tomes on sexual health, gender and development, is a simple wooden display cabinet.

I am momentarily startled by the brightly coloured rubber and plastic articles on show - especially as this is a Sharia state where jurisdiction is based on Muslim law.

Dorothy takes me through her collection of sex aids and toys.

"We have dildos, vibrators, nipple ticklers, clitoris massagers, gels, lubricants, condoms," she says. "This is the beginning of our sexual health shop."

Dorothy is the founder of the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights - Increse, a non-governmental organisation.

Fundamental to Dorothy's approach to sexual health is a commitment to teaching people about sexual pleasure.

So her collection of sex toys and aids has a very serious intent: she believes that enhancing sexual pleasure not only improves communication, but crucially, also minimises domestic violence.

"If people want and believe in sexual pleasure," she says, "they will know that battering a woman is certainly not romantic and isn't one of the ways of achieving pleasure. So teaching sexual pleasure may be one way of ensuring women aren't beaten in their own homes."

Domestic discord

We head out to the predominantly Muslim community of Paiko, a 20-minute drive from Minna.

Dorothy has an appointment with the local government council to discuss the progress of a new couples' support centre - the first of its kind in Nigeria.

The initiative came about after Increse did a survey in the area, and found that many people highlighted a lack of harmony between couples, and anxiety about the number of divorce cases.

For Dorothy, the most surprising thing about the study was how open people were.

"There's an assumption that in the traditional north of Nigeria, people won't tolerate discussions about sex. But we found the community very open and willing to talk about many issues of sexuality, including sexual intercourse."

Baba Salihu Danjumo, chairman of Paiko local government
Local council chairman Baba Salihu Danjumo is supportive
Despite coming from the permissive, "anything-goes" capital of the UK, even I find Dorothy's directness occasionally disarming.

But her passion to promote sexual health and well-being leaves no room for coyness. And in an office crammed with local council members, only one of whom is a woman, the chairman, Baba Salihu Danjumo, is equally unfazed.

There will, he says, be private counselling sessions at the new centre where people can discuss pleasure, sexual dysfunction, infertility and family planning.

In fact, the council is so impressed with the project conceived by Increse, it is putting extra resources into the centre, and renovating a further building for young people.

Dorothy is cock-a-hoop, and tells me: "It's such a misconception that people in the north are closed and don't welcome development. This community is ready for a new start. I'm really impressed."


In Increse, Dorothy has created a unique organisation. Apart from teaching the young people who flock to the Increse centre in Minna from all ethnic and religious communities and doing outreach work in places like Paiko, Dorothy is committed to challenging taboos.

Dorothy's seen things lacking in the Nigerian system and she's trying to change them
Idris, Abuja hotel manager
Nothing is off-limits. So there are workshops on unsafe abortion, seminars on rape, discussions about teenage pregnancy. And recently she created a network for bisexual women and lesbians.

There are no public meeting places in Nigeria, like cafes or bars, for women who are attracted to other women, and nowhere their health needs can be addressed.

Through Increse, Dorothy has chosen to challenge the prevailing silence around homosexuality.


So far, she has organised three secret meetings of Igonet (Increse Girls Only Network) in a hotel in Abuja.

The general manager of the hotel, Idris, has decided the risk he runs in hosting the get-togethers is worth it.

"The hotel could be set ablaze if the word got out, but I'm proud to be assisting Dorothy in her work", he tells me. "She's seen things lacking in the Nigerian system and she's trying to change them."

I was introduced to some of the women who had met in Abuja. Fortune, a 20-something student from Lagos, told me how wonderful it was to be with other women like her in a safe environment, and get reliable information about sexuality.

Pamela described how her self-esteem had risen as a result of being part of the network.

These women feel safe in Dorothy's company. She throws her head back and laughs uproariously at their stories, but her mission is deadly serious: to challenge the inequalities she believes exist in Nigeria, and fight for an end to discriminatory practices.


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