In the northern Nigerian town of Kano, women activists say the major issues hindering women's development are poverty and lack of a good education. Since the mid-1980s, some state governments in northern Nigeria began offering free education for girls up through secondary school. In other states, it was made an offense not to educate a girl. But women's rights advocates say those guarantees are not always enforced, and girls continue to lag behind boys.
Mairo Bello is the national coordinator of a local NGO called Adolescent Health and Information Project. The group is funded by a number of partners, including the European Commission, USAID and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. She says, "Education is a major issue that needs to be addressed in northern Nigeria. The education that is being promoted should be really re-visited and especially for the women folks, because a good majority of our women in northern Nigeria are not educated." Feminists note that most girls drop out of school. In some cases their families encourage them to marry; in other cases they look for work. Some sell home-made foods during the day and attend Koranic classes in the evening.
Women who complete secondary school find it harder than men to find jobs or go to the university.
Bello says women would benefit from receiving both western and Koranic educations. She says religion teaches morals and ethics. But western education teaches science, technology and logical approaches to problem-solving. These, she says can help women get white collar jobs. "These two complementing each other will empower any individual to attain greater heights in life."
Bello says illiteracy will be reduced if both forms of education are encouraged. She says the Koran is sometimes interpreted in ways that lead to the subjugation of women, "People interpret it [the Koran] depending on their needs or when they need it to do certain things or to suppress certain rights. This is not right. "
She says such incorrect interpretations make it harder for women to enter politics or find employment, which would give them independence and economic self-sufficiency.
Bello also says one way forward is for people to begin to change their narrow attitudes towards women. For example, she says the Koran allows both men and women the right to a good education, but many families focus on boys rather than girls.
Sa'a Ibrahim is a journalist and a director at Kano State Radio Corporation. She agrees with Bello that women need good educations for their own benefit and so they contribute to national development, "There is abject poverty and as a result of that, women are deprived of many things, including education. So issues to do with women rights, basic necessities of life are very difficult for women to accomplish because of their status."
Ibrahim says the rate of poverty is more in the rural areas where tradition encourages women to limit themselves to petty trade, like preparing cooked foods that girls hawk to make money for the family.
She says mistaken views of women make it hard for them to take part in politics at both the state and federal levels. So they can't play more than a minor role in administration, science and technology and politics. Ibrahim calls these "problems of gender imbalance" and says society must solve them in all fields, including education, politics and employment.
"For women to progress honestly we [the government] need to empower them, we [the government] need to make sure that women can stand on their feet to look after their children with or without their husbands, she says.
Ibrahim says to empower women, the government must do more to make sure that girls stay in school and that most of them find jobs. It may be slow going, but Ibrahim welcomes what she calls the current social revolution, with more girls staying in school and even going to the university.