Most primary schools in the northern Nigerian state of Kano have seen a significant increase in girls' enrollment in recent years thanks to a community-based initiative that is helping to correct long-time gender inequalities in education.
Young students of the Zakarai Primary School, in Zakarai village 40 kilometers outside Kano city, greet visitors to their classroom. In Nigeria's Muslim-dominated northern state of Kano, boys continue to outnumber girls in primary schools, but by a slimmer margin than in previous years.
"My name is Yusuf Sarkin, head teacher of Riman Dagaci Primary School," he said. "You see, 2006/2007- boys we have 104, girls we have 82 as our enrollment in class one. 2007/2008, we have boys 64, female we have 57; that is what I told you we had no accommodation that is why the enrollment was low. 2008 academic session, boys we have 105, girls we have 94. There is a big development as you can see."
And the gender gap is closing as Yakubu Suleiman, assistant head teacher of the public primary school in Zakarai village, told VOA.
"Each class we are having at least 90 pupils, the difference may be five to six or 10 between female and male. Even the enrollment [of girls] is trying to catch up," he said.
Official figures say primary school intake has more than doubled in Nigeria since the introduction of free primary education in 2001. But with no substantial increase in funding, the school system deteriorated.
Alhaji Nuhu Gaya, heads a group of volunteers known as "community coalition" in the rural community of Gaya Kudu, 64 kilometers from Kano city. They work under a community-run project supported by USAID and its Nigeria affiliate, COMPASS. The group is working to improve the quality of basic education and boost girls' school enrollment.
"With regard to basic education, we realized that we had over crowding, large population of pupils, about 150 in a class, in some cases 100. So we discussed at what we call community dialogue. We had shortage of classrooms, furniture, teaching facilities and untrained teachers in our primary schools," said Gaya.
Over the past three years, a number of primary schools in Kano have been rehabilitated and the quality of teaching improved under the COMPASS initiative.
"My name is Magaji Ibrahim and this school is Kreyema Model Primary School. I am the assistant head teacher," said Ibrahim. "Before the coming of COMPASS we lacked pupils. But with the coming of COMPASS, the school was renovated, furniture was brought to the school, ceiling fans and even you can see some of the interesting things that were placed by COMPASS, which aroused the interest of our pupils to come to school."
And one critical area of intervention is the provision of toilet facilities in a truly conservative and predominantly Muslim community, where lack of separate toilet facilities for boys and girls is a major obstacle to girls' school enrollment. Hajia Gaji Abdullahi speaks for the Kano State Universal Basic Education Board.
"Many of the schools that COMPASS is working with, they have additional toilets being built, which will enable the schools to have separate toilets for boys and for girls that will prompt the girl-child to be going to school. Even in teaching itself where the teachers will let the girl-child to participate in class activities that will also prompt them to be coming to school. Not only toilets but even water is being made available in the schools," said Abdullahi.
And parents in beneficiary communities are no longer having second thoughts about sending their daughters to school. Sixty-year-old Gaya Bello had just returned to Gabasawa village after 40 years in Kano city. He had come to the local primary school to register his five-year-old daughter, Amina, and had advice for parents in a region where girls are married off early at
the expense of their education.
"I think religion is the main factor that makes our people to think that way. But to be sincere, female students are not supposed to be withdrawn from school," said Bello. "I will advise any person to allow his daughter to reach whatever level of education she would want to. I am sure it would help the community."
The new basic education interventions are designed to improve the quality of education for 500,000 primary school students in public and Islamic schools in Kano, Nasarawa and Lagos.
Local education officials, parents and students say the program is so successful that it should be extended to other schools across Nigeria.