To educate means to train the mind, to build character and develop ability. Education is responsible for the transfer of skills, values and benefits from one generation to another; it is probably the most important aspect of human development and the key to successful living. Since women are responsible for child upbringing in the society, it follows that education should begin with them; and they should transfer such education to children, especially girls, to ensure the continuity of the cycle. Good education makes girls better mothers, good home keepers and efficient leaders.
Girl-child education has always been negatively affected by cultural and religious misconceptions. Female education is seen as wasteful because culturally, women are seen as being confined to domestic chores and procreation. This is in contrast to boys, who are seen as bread winners and custodians of the family lineage. In most cases, while making the choice of sending a child to school due to limited resources in the family, it is the boy that is chosen. Girls are often sent out to work, trade or hawk at a tender age to generate additional income for the family, exposing them to many dangers.
Even when allowed to attend school, girls are vulnerable in many ways; at puberty, they may skip school for days when observing their monthly period due to lack of water and sanitation at school. They may also be forced to leave school due to harassment by teachers or fellow students, or even early pregnancy. School distance sometimes also contributes to girls dropping out of school.
According to a UNICEF report, the number of out-of-school girls is very high, with proportion of girls to boys in school ranging from 1 girl to 2 boys and even 1 to 3 boys in some states and zones; North Central and North West present the worst national scenarios. Girls’ access to basic education especially in the northern states is very low, with only 20 percent of women in North West and North East attending school; current female literacy rate for ages 15 and above in the country is put at 59.4 percent which is less than male literacy rate of 74.4 percent.
Some cultures believe that no matter the level of education a girl attains in life, once she gets married to another family, she answers their name, thereby glorifying their status. In most villages of northern Nigeria, educating a girl is not considered a priority, as most of them are married out early. In fact, early marriage affects every eighth girl. One in seven girls are said to give birth by age 17. The easiest justification for this practice is that it serves as a strategy for reducing burden on the family. But in reality, among other problems, early marriage accords northern Nigeria with having the highest number of Vesico-Vaginal Fistula (VVF) cases.
Religious misconception is another militating factor, making many parents to believe that formal education is not meant for girls. It is assumed that the primary responsibility for which they were created is domestic chores. In most cultures, school is seen as a distraction, especially in places where women and girls are the home makers who must stay at home to cook, clean, take care of the children and the sick. These women also fetch water, sometimes from long distances, for drinking, washing, sanitation, and cooking for the entire family. This, in many cases has a direct effect on their health.
It is also assumed that staying for many years in school might cause a girl not to marry on time. Suitors also have their issues with educated girls; they believe that education makes women to look down on men. This reason dissuades many parents from sending their girls to school; they believe once a girl has her first monthly period, then she should be in her husband’s house.
Poverty and unemployment are determinants of girl-child education. Girls are denied the opportunity to develop their talents and contribute to the society and nation building, because parents consider them as agents for generating income for the family; the expectation on girls’ input into the family income is very high.
For girls that have grown to be mothers, they do not accept this state of affairs; they want a better deal for their daughters and they believe that education is the road to this better deal. That explains the effort that has been going on in favour of girl-child education. Both from government, the development sector and the voluntary sector. In the end, the outcome expected is an improvement in the number of girls that receive education.
Wife of the president, Mrs. Aisha Buhari, as any other mother, has been an advocate of girl-child education all her life. She has been involved in the campaign for this fundamental right to be upheld so that the pain women and girls go through in life can be alleviated. Primarily, she sees awareness creation among mothers as the first step of the campaign.
One of the important things she did, was to advocate for the girl child education bill by the National Assembly and urged women across the country to come together to make it a reality. Mrs. Buhari has maintained that no Nigerian girl child would be left in her campaign to fight illiteracy.
She advocates directly, as well as through community and religious leaders, drawing attention to the significant difference education makes in women’s lives including knowledge of their rights and privileges, opportunities, issues of nutrition, basic health care, self-awareness, health-screening, both for them and their immediate families.
Mrs. Buhari has also been advocating on the importance of employing female teachers in grassroots areas because they would encourage parents to allow girls have access to education at least up to secondary school level. Whenever she had the opportunity, she encouraged young girls to actualise their dreams of having a bright future not only through marriage, but also through education.
For out-of-school girls and those hawking on the streets, Mrs. Buhari has organised and promoted training programmes on skill acquisition, after which they are empowered with funds or tools to start their businesses for socio economic reliance. Skills acquisition training is very important as it enables them boost their confidence and empowers them to be in charge of their lives and to be good mothers. To the community, it reduces poverty, and increases wealth creation.
For those girls that have left school and are having difficulty continuing their education, Mrs. Buhari is making special arrangement for them to be tutored so that they can reattempt qualifying examinations and move on and graduate. There are many girls staying at home, either married or unmarried that desire an additional chance but are restrained by lack of means or simply lack the confidence to reattempt failed examinations.
Without clean water, girls will continue to miss school, therefore, she has been advocating for the provision of clean and safe water, especially in hard to reach communities, so that women and girls, who bear the burden of fetching water will be relieved. In order to show example, she had provided bore holes and tube wells across the country, so that these can be utilised and girls can remain in school and be freed from this burden.
Girl child education is the best investment for development, as it has multi-dimensional impact; for illiteracy, child and maternal mortality, disease and poverty to be overcome in our society, therefore, girls must be given equal access to education and must be provided with relevant skills to establish and run their own businesses.
Bunu writes from the Office of the Wife of the President.