LAGOS, NIGERIA – Jide Odi, 27, a graduate from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, says Valentine’s Day usually leads to an increase in sexual activity.
“People say Valentine’s Day is a time for couples in a relationship to actually have unlimited sex,” he says. “It is the accepted day for one-time marathon sex. So naturally, it is expected that day the sales of condom and contraceptive will be high.”
But for Odi, Valentine’s Day is not about sex. He says he has no plans for the day.
“I don’t think I should pack all the sex of several days into one day,” he says.
As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, young Nigerians debate whether people are more sexually active today. Retailers say they see an increase in contraceptive sales for the holiday. Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations are using Valentine’s Day as a platform for sexual and reproductive health education for young people. Although access to condoms has increased, correct and consistent use of condoms remains a challenge.
Between 2005 and 2010, 49 percent of males and 36 percent of females ages 15 to 24 in Nigeria used a condom the last time they had sex with a nonmarital, noncohabiting partner, according to UNICEF.
In 2010, the Federal Ministry of Health and the Society for Family Health, a nongovernmental organization based in Lagos, distributed more than 2 billion male condoms and nearly 900,000 female condoms, according to the Nigeria 2012 Global AIDS Response Country Progress Report.
Precious Iheanacho, 18, says her peers are more inclined to have sex on Valentine’s Day. But she advocates for abstinence.
“I don’t do sex,” she says. “It is wrong to have sex before marriage.”
Iheanacho encourages her peers to at least use protection if they do have sex.
“Sex is something that should wait until you get married so then you can appreciate it,” she says. “But if you cannot control yourself, I think you should be protected.”
But Iheanacho says that young girls have limited knowledge about how they should protect themselves.
“There should be programs geared towards them,” she says. “They don’t know how to protect themselves so they end up committing abortion.”
Samson Opeyemi Oguntona, 28, says he plans to spend this Valentine’s Day with his girlfriend.
“My plan is to go out with my babe,” he says.
But Oguntona says that he is not caught in the web of limiting Valentine’s Day to sexual gratification. Rather, they may go to a fast-food restaurant or a recreational place to discuss issues.
Adeshola Enitan Okesanya, 21, says that she and her boyfriend may celebrate the holiday by attending events in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial city.
“We’ll do normal stuff: talk, kiss or have sex,” she says. “It just comes. It is not that I’m going to plan it.”
Okesanya says the day is not all about sex, attributing people’s misperception of this to a limited awareness of the significance of Valentine’s Day.
“This Valentine’s Day should be about love, care for one another,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be your boyfriend.”
She says people could instead spend the day distributing gifts to orphanages.
“The day should be about spreading love to others,” she says.
She also doesn’t think that Valentine’s Day contributes to an increase in condom or contraceptive sales, a phenomenon cited by local retailers.
Kelechi Uwozo, a sales representative at a mini-mart located in Ikeja, the capital of Lagos state, says that condom sales rise every year on Valentine’s Day.
“Condom sales sometimes move,” Uwozo says. “It is not something you sell regularly. If I sell 10 normally, that day I may sell 40.”
Bose Adedeji, a sales representative at a pharmaceutical store in Ogba, a small community in Lagos, agrees with Uwozo on the increase in condom sales on Valentine’s Day. But she says that customers buy more female contraceptives than condoms on Feb. 14 and the day after.
Adedeji points at a stack of female contraceptives on a shelf in the store.
“Daily pill or morning-after pill for women is what normally move,” she says. “But for condom, it moves all the time.”
Funke Otaru, a program assistant at the Abuja office of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, an international nongovernmental organization, says that the increase in condom sales on Valentine’s Day doesn’t mean that young people are actually using them.
“If you say condom use increases,” she says, “you actually do not follow them to their houses to know if they use those condoms. They could be picking those condoms from wherever they are and not using them.”
Precious-Promise Ilalokhoin, a youth counselor specializing in teenage-parent relationships, says there’s a misperception that many young people lose their virginity on Valentine’s Day. But she says that an increase in condom sales during the holiday doesn’t mean more people have sex for the first time that day.
To educate young people about their sexual and reproductive health, nongovernmental organizations hold sensitization programs for young people on Valentine’s Day.
Otaru says that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation organizes an annual event to mark the holiday. But this year, it centered the event around International Condom Day.
“Our event is geared towards the International Condoms Day, which is the 13th, a day before the Valentine’s Day,” Otaru says. “But nevertheless, we have activities that will span through that week.”
Activities include voluntary HIV counseling and testing at mobile units stationed in the suburbs of Abuja, the national capital. Dancing will also provide entertainment while volunteers distribute educational materials and free condoms to participants.
“We are going to be training them how to use condom and all of that,” Otaru says.
Meanwhile, Ilalokhoin convenes more than 200 students at an annual seminar called “Sweeter than Sex” every Feb. 13.
“The Sweeter than Sex is a pre-Valentine event where we want to educate teenagers about sexual health, emotion, their body – everything that affect young people,” she says.
The program encourages young people to abstain from premarital sex while exploring friendship, building self-esteem and aiming for self-actualization – which are all sweeter than sex, she says.
“We have been running it for more than five years now,” Ilalokhoin says.
Partners have included organizations such as Human Development Initiatives and the Nigerian Red Cross as well as the Lagos State Ministry of Health.
Emmanuel Olaito, a senior program officer for the HIV prevention program at Society for Family Health, says that it’s collaborating with smaller nongovernmental organizations to carry out mobile HIV testing as well as to distribute free condoms on Valentine’s Day.
“Basically, the focus of all our program is the social marketing of condoms,” he says.
Olaito says that condom distribution underlies all of the organization’s programs to promote positive sexual behavior.
Culturally, young people didn’t used to openly talk about sex or access condoms, Otaru says. But this is changing.
“Access to condom has increased,” she says. “It is no longer a cultural thing.”
Otaru attributes this to outreach and intervention programs carried out by nongovernmental organizations.
“I think that a lot of people are assertive and a lot of people are having good access to condoms,” she says. “We actually have condom dispenser installed in some of the clubs, hotels, where people can access them freely.”
Still, Otaru says that young people need to learn how to negotiate condom use with their partners.
“It is very necessary that you negotiate with your partner in using a condom because it is going to actually save you a lot,” she says. “You should use a condom to protect yourself. If you are not married and you want to engage in sexual activity, then please protect yourself. Protection goes a long way.”
Olaito says that young people need to become aware of their sexual needs, which vary depending on their sexual orientation, their background and their environment.
“Our sexual needs are different,” he says.
Young people’s awareness of their sexual needs enables them to learn about the different options available to them to protect themselves.
“We should be aware of the options available to us as regards preventing HIV and living a sexually responsible life,” Olaito says. “Stick to the option that fits into your lifestyle.”
Ilalokhoin agrees on the need for young people to educate themselves about topics such as sexually transmitted diseases.
“There is a lot of stories about how good condoms are in preventing STDs,” she says. “But I’m yet to see a report that says condom is 100-percent perfect,” Ilalokhoin says.
She also says that young people lack the time to learn how to properly use a condom.
“Before you can get 98-percent safety in condom,” she says, “they say you have to use it correctly and consistently. It means you have to wear it correctly. You have to make sure it does not burst during sexual intercourse, and a recent report says you have to change it after each ejaculation. How many teenagers have the time to do that?”
One of Society for Family Health and the Federal Ministry of Health’s strategies to prevent new HIV infections in Nigeria is to ensure that at least 80 percent of sexually active men and women use condoms consistently and correctly with nonregular partners by 2015, according to the Nigeria 2012 Global AIDS Response Country Progress Report.
Meanwhile, Ilalokhoin advises young people to focus more on activities that will help them to achieve self-realization, such as building strong friendships, rather than having sex.
“There are certain things that if you don’t discover in life, you’ll not be happy,” she says. “And sex cannot do that for you.”