LAGOS - Olawale Abosede stood shoulder to shoulder with four other shy young Nigerians – all of them school girls – to tell the reporters and camera crews how important it was for them to be educated.
Dressed in a red T-shirt, a black skirt and a black pair of peep-toe shoes Olawale stood proudly with her classmates from the government-run Ajuwon High School in far-off Ogun state in southwest Nigeria. The five were brought by the Oando Foundation to Lagos and the air-conditioned multi-purpose room of the U.S. Consulate General to exemplify the value of education in a country with the world’s highest proportion of unschooled children.
Those less fortunate were back home helping their mothers and other petty traders of the markets of Ogun state. Those friends back home are some of the 10.5 million Nigerian children who do not attend school.
The five girls were brought to Nigeria’s former capital by the Oando Foundation, which gives them student scholarships, to sustain their education pursuits.
“Investing in girl education is a smart thing to do,” Olawale said. She spoke softly, stumbling over her words as the audience stared wide-eye at her.
But not everyone embraces the relevance of educating the girl child. More than half of those millions of Nigeria’s children not attending school are girls. And the challenge to get girls in school is greatest in Nigeria’s northern states where culture, tradition and the economy bar so many girls from getting a good education.
More students start school, but many don’t stay to graduate like Olawale and her friends do.
Many Girls Start, but Many Don’t Stay
“When we now look at retention and completion, then in those areas you’ll see girls are still lagging seriously behind, you know,” says Dr. Uwem Esiet. He says more girls are enrolled in primary education, but many don’t stay for secondary school.
The challenge is keeping them in the classroom, says Esiet, who is the director of a youth-focused NGO in Lagos, Action Health Incorporated.
A boy or girl who starts primary school at the age of six will most likely drop out at the age of nine, he says. Girls are most affected. And according to a recent report from the Health, Human & Social Development Information Service the states with the highest numbers of uneducated girls are in northern states dominated by Islamic cultural beliefs - Kebbi, Sokoto, Bauchi, Jigawa, Yobe, Zamfara, Katsina, and Gombe – coupled with the male-dominated customs that prevail throughout the nation.
Men make decisions for women, says Esiet. Young girls have no say in whether they will have access to a good education. In Borno and Bauchi states, Esiet says researchers asked community, traditional and religious leaders why they discourage girls from going to school.
The most common reply goes like this, says Esiet.
“If we allow these girls to go to school just like the way you are advocating, they will become sexually active outside of marriage," he said. "And if they become sexually active outside of marriage, all these HIV you people are shouting [about] they are likely going to be infected.”
The solution for the fathers is to take them out of school before it’s too late.
“So what we will prefer,” they say, “is to let them have sex within marriage where we can at least know who is their sexual partner- their husband.”
They often do not argue against school, at last not until their daughters reach the age of nine or 10. When they approach puberty, take them out of the classroom and get them married off, the fathers say. After that, then they can have education.
Not just a northern problem
Don’t put all of the focus on the northern state, Esiet cautions. Some states in the Southwest, including Lagos - Nigeria’s commercial hub - also have cases of girls dropping out of school.
In Iwaya, one of the slum settlements in Lagos, a team of researchers working at Action Health Incorporated found over 500 girls who were not in school even though free education is available in the state. The organization appealed to the state’s Agency for Mass Education, which set up a study center in the community.
Community engagement should be constructive, Esiet says.
“If we have information, we bring the information to the government,” he said.
The information on education of the girl child gathered by the organization is done through empirical research, literature review or observation. They learned the many factors that work against staying in school: ignorance, parents who cannot afford school uniforms and textbooks, and the failure of government to invest enough money in educational facilities.
Rescuing Youth at Risk
There are an estimated 170 million people in Nigeria. Thirty percent of them are children and adolescents. Of those eligible for primary schools, a third of them don’t attend. And about 25 percent of the older children don’t go to school either.
To rectify this, Esiet says that the strategy for making a nationwide argument for more and better education start with Muslim clerics and educated women.
Esiet organized a training conference to discuss some of the fears and beliefs about education common in northern Nigeria. The facilitator was a well-educated cleric, a man who several times referred to his well-educated daughters. The trainer’s wife, who was also well schooled, joined the session. Esiet realized this type of community engagement would overcome education’s critics and compel the people to embrace schooling.
Removing barriers, building communities
During the last International Day of the Girl Child, Nigerian women called for the removal of barriers to the potential of girls in society.
Countries that empower their girls achieve development, says Dr. Oby Ezekwesili. “Education is the fastest tool for social and economic mobility,” said Oby, who is a senior economic adviser for the African Economic Development Policy Initiative at the Open Society Foundation. She was speaking at an event promoting more opportunities for Nigeria’s girls.
Every human being is a resource, she said. When women are not given adequate opportunities to develop, they cannot contribute to the progress of their communities and their nations.
Esiet says Nigeria has many national and state policies guaranteeing girls access to education, but there is still a lack of implementation at the grassroots.
Will brides become good students?
“I am saying this coming from the backdrop of the work we’ve done in northern Nigeria, especially trying to get married adolescent girls back into school,” he says.
For seven years, Action Health Incorporated has worked in northeastern Nigeria to encourage married adolescent girls to return to school. With funding support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), AHI collaborated with community leaders and state government agencies in the state to enroll girls in school. They provided crèches for their babies within the school and also ensured availability of sanitation and clinics.
In a similar effort, UNICEF launched its Girls’ Education Project in northern states. The project sponsored by United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) aims to enroll one million girls in school by 2020.
In Sokoto, UNICEF is working with the state government to give monetary incentives of about $31 so girls can buy school uniforms and books and return to school. In some states, the government provides meals for children during school hours in accordance with Nigeria’s Basic Education Law. It states that any child in public school from kindergarten to junior secondary school must have access to a meal.
Corporate organizations are also not left out. Oando Foundation works in collaboration with public schools in Nigeria to award scholarship to girls in under-served communities. As a result of their efforts, Olawale Abosede and many others are enrolled to complete their secondary school education.
“That is aside,” says Esiet. He argues that they cannot replace the government’s responsibilities to address significant lapses in the education sector.
Esiet says the Nigerian government must increase its commitment to educating all of its children.
“This is also a critical challenge because there is under-investment in the catalytic things that will make citizens to be knowledgeable and empowered,” he said.
If all boys and girls in Nigeria decide to go to school, there will not be enough classrooms and teachers for them. He says Nigerian leaders must devote more money and political support to education, and begin to see it as a moral obligation the government owes its citizens.