Wednesday, May 05, 2010

In Defence Of The Right Of The Girl Child To A Quality Education

"There can be no significant or sustainable transformation in societies and no significant reduction in poverty until girls receive the quality basic education they need to take their rightful place as equal partners in development”
Carol Bellamy, Former Executive Director, UNICEF.

Despite the wide clamour for delay of early marriage amongst the girl child and an increased commitment towards girl child education, latest findings by various organisations indicates that the sub-Saharan Africa is yet to come to terms with the need to delay early marriage of the girl child and channelling of resources towards their proper education. Though it has become a household cliché in the sub-Saharan Africa that the education of the girl child is akin to educating the whole world and therefore the surest investment any country can make to safeguard its future, records from different countries in the sub-Sahara Africa shows that the education of the boy child is by far more valued than that of her girl child counterpart. It was therefore not a surprising statement when British Department for International Development (DFID) came up with a shocking revelation which says that going by the available statistics and progress reports of different countries, no fewer than 75 countries would meet up with the United Nations Millennium Development Goal target of gender parity in primary and secondary school enrolments by 2015.

The numbers two and three of the Millennium Development Goals seeks to achieve universal primary education and to promote gender equality and empower women by eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005 and at all levels by 2015. Also an existing partnership between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the United Nations Children Fund Nigeria called Strategy for Acceleration of Girls’ Education in Nigeria (SAGEN) seeks to achieve gender parity in access, retention and completion of Basic Education. SAGEN also intends to expand and improve comprehensive early girl childhood care and education, ensuring that by 2015 all children particularly girls have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality as well as eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education and ensuring gender equality in education by 2015.

According to DFID, one-third of these countries that are not likely to meet up with the Goal are in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria is on top of the list. DFID is also of the opinion that at least 40 percent of all countries in the world are at risk of not making the target at primary, secondary or both levels of education by 2015. The reason sub-Saharan African countries could not meet up with the Goals has been attributed to some cultural and traditional beliefs prevalent in the region. In some parts of sub Sahara Africa, it is traditional and customary for the girl child to marry early-before age 18-so that the money could be used for the education of the boy child, support the dwindling business fortune of the family or to send the boy child abroad to search for greener pastures. As a result of this unfortunate situation, experts have predicted that about 82 million girls in developing countries who are now aged 10 to 17 will be married before their 18th birthday. Girl child marriage is still the norm in some countries where majority of girls marry before age 18. Some of these countries include Nepal where about 60 per cent marry before age 18, 76 per cent in Niger Republic, 50 per cent in India and 80 per cent in Nigeria. In Nigeria about four million girls of school age are not enrolled in school.

The statistics of girl child school dropout rate as a result of early marriage round the world is heart breaking. In sub-Sahara Africa about 40 countries had about 23 million of their girls out of school. 22 million girls who are out of school in South and West Asia are concentrated in India and Pakistan. In Niger Republic less than one-third of all school aged girls are enrolled in primary school while in Rwanda four out of every five girls are enrolled in primary school. A recent publication of DFID revealed that about 58 million girls worldwide are not in school whereas their male counterpart recorded just about 45 million. Part of the reason for this situation, it noted is the high rate of early marriage amongst the girl child. The United Nations Children Fund affirming that girls and boys have the same right to a quality education however regretted that the gender gap amongst them quickly demonstrates that more girls than boys are kept out of school. UNICEF in its 1990 Year Report noted that of 20 percent of the world’s primary school-aged children who were out of school, two-thirds of them are girls. Even though the numbers of children out of school were brought down to about 120 million worldwide by the year 2000, most of these, about 70 million were girls. In Nigeria, a 12 percent gender difference in primary Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) was recorded in 2001 compared to 7% in 1990. Also, of about 3.9 million primary school-aged children that are out of school, 71 percent are girls. “Today there are more children than ever in the world’s primary schools but the majority of those who are not are still girls”, UNICEF said.

The Nigerian scenario is very peculiar with girls more likely to be in the school in the southern part than in the northern part. Part of the reason is because of the high prevalence of early marriage and poverty in the north compared to the south. A girl child in the north is by far more likely to be married off before age 18 than her counterpart in the south. This has resulted in great imbalance in the life of women in the two regions. An average married woman in the south has at least a basic education. She is married at a later age and has fewer children. She sends her kids to school and is likely to have more access to reproductive health care, lives a healthy life and has a very high potential of reproducing healthy and educated children. Her counterpart in the north is less likely to achieve that. She is married before age 15 with little or no education. She has more children and has more chances of dying as a result of complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Her children are not likely to benefit from basic education because she herself never received one and therefore cannot know or cherish the importance of education. She is also more likely to live unhealthy life due to the accumulation of stresses of pregnancy and childbirth and would eventually reproduce unhealthy and uneducated children. This is in compliance with the fact that poverty begets poverty; and the cycle continues.

The former President of Nigerian, Olusegun Obasanjo in an address to commemorate the 2005 Children’s Day, blamed the diverse nature of Nigerian society and its different socio-cultural beliefs as being a cog in the wheel of streamlining the opportunities of the girl child. “The girl child is often faced with discriminations from the early stages of her life. She is assigned roles in the home that are gender discriminatory, and further confronted with social and cultural obstacles to her future life such as early marriage and genital mutilation”, he said. “In many cases, girls that are educated are carefully and deliberately guided away from professions that are male dominated. The result is that many girls and women slip into the margins of national development activities”, he added.

According to experts other factors responsible for early marriage and drop out of the girl child from the school especially in the northern part of the country has been traced to poverty, parental desire to ensure sexual relationship within marriage, a lack of educational or employment opportunities for girls, the sense that girls’ main value is as wives and mothers and dowry systems. Findings also suggest that the most important and biggest factor discouraging parents from sending girls to school is the fear of high rate of physical and sexual harassment women face in some societies. As a result some parents would rather keep their children at home or just marry them off at a young age rather than have them defiled. “This aptly describes the situation in northern Nigeria, where for religious and cultural reasons, girls are not allowed to go to school at all or at most not beyond the elementary”, said a woman from the region who does not want her name in the press.

Also in some cultures parents still believe that women education ends in the kitchen and since it ends in the kitchen it would be pointless sending them to school in the first place. In relation to that they also believe that educating a girl is not important and very useless since a man would later come to marry her off with her education. As a result they would prefer sending their male child to school leaving the girl child as ‘burden’ that would eventually be disposed of. UNICEF quoted a 15 year old Indian girl as saying: “I had never been to school before because my father didn’t think girls should be educated. Even my mother thought the same; she never went to school either. My brothers went to school because they would become ‘working hands’. My father said I would just get married”. One writer put it this way: “In relation to the above point is the weak position of women in the society. Girls have very limited control over their futures that they are often forced to drop out of school for one reason or the other or forced into early marriage. To put it succinctly, girls are made to “make sacrifices” for other family members at their own peril”.

The issue of security is also another reason the girl child is denied access to basic education. In times of emergency, the girl child is more likely to be withdrawn from the school than her male counterpart. During these emergencies they are naturally prone to sexual abuse and unequal access to schooling especially in countries without security or in conflict. According to DFID, 37 million children that are not in primary school globally of which majority are girls, reside in fragile states. The war torn Sudan has one of the lowest girls’ enrolment rates in the world. Worried by this ugly scenario and the dwindling enrolment of the girl child in the school, experts believe that young girls in the developing world who are denied education due to early marriage and other factors are denied much of what their young colleagues elsewhere take for granted. These include good education, good health and access to basic healthcare and economic opportunities and the right to associate with their peer.

DFID was of the opinion that education makes an enormous difference to a woman’s chances of finding a well paid job, raising a healthy family and preventing the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS. “Women with at least a basic education are much less likely to be poor proving that girls with one extra year of schooling beyond the average can boost their eventual wages by 10 to 20 per cent. Also, an infant born to an educated woman is much likely to survive until adulthood”, said UNICEF. It has also been established that in the sub-Saharan Africa children of mothers who receive at least five years of primary education are 40 per cent more likely to live beyond age five while an educated woman is 50 per cent more likely to have her children immunised against childhood diseases. For instance an interview conducted by the Guardian Newspapers of Nigeria in Yabo Local Government Area of Sokoto State during the state National Immunisation Days Campaign revealed that majority of mothers who came to immunise their wards and children are literate. One of the mothers Hajia Fatima Abubakar said that it has been her tradition to immunise all her children at the appropriate time. She told the Guardian that being a literate woman she knows the importance of immunisation to children. “Though am not a graduate, am educated enough to know the importance of immunisation. Every reasonable mother knows the importance of immunisation in fighting the childhood killer diseases. Because of my children happy future, I owe them a duty to immunise them today. I think it is only illiterate mothers who will believe any story they hear and refuse to immunise their children”, she said.

Stakeholders have also passed a verdict that it is no more in doubt that early marriage almost inevitably disrupts education of the girl child and reduces her chances for future independence through work. They were of the opinion that married girls are rarely found in schools and girls who are not in school rarely have much contact with their peers or people outside their families. The implication is that she will lack the necessary interaction and experience that will carry her to the future as a mother. The consequences of early marriage for adolescent girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights are significant. Their exposure to Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV and AIDS is very high compared with their counterparts who are educated and married later. Young uneducated married girls are generally unable to negotiate the use of contraceptives or to refuse sexual relations and are more likely to be married to older men with more sexual experience who are more likely than single men to be HIV positive. Indeed recent research sponsored by the United Nations Children Fund indicates that young uneducated married girls are more likely to be HIV positive than their educated unmarried counterparts.

It is also an established fact that young uneducated married girls often cannot seek health care without the permission of their husbands or other family members, generally cannot pay for health care independently and may experience periods of depression. Husbands and families also apply pressure on young wives to have a child soon after marriage thereby increasing their risk of maternal death or injury and hampering efforts to prevent Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV and AIDS through regular use of the contraceptives. Experts are therefore unanimous in their conclusion that such early childbirth often goes hand in hand with high rates of poverty, lower levels of education, less mobility and fewer attended births which has been linked to high maternal mortality rate amongst young mothers.

In addition, young uneducated girls’ relative lack of power is often linked to violence in marriage which is associated with unwanted pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Young brides have very little ability to leave abusive partners and many live in isolation with little chance to secure social or legal support to remedy their situation. While on tour of the three southern states of Edo, Delta and Akwa Ibom, the former Nigerian Minister of Women Affairs, Hajia Inna Maryam Ciroma told the stakeholders in the states that quality education targeted at girls and women, could be the most powerful weapon in the nations quest for socio-economic development and fight against poverty. The contribution of girls' education, she told Obong Victor Attah, the former Governor of Akwa Ibom State could as well directly lead to sustainable development saying that it has been established that educating girls and women is the single most important investment that yields maximum returns for development of any nation. She also told James Ibori, the former Governor of Delta State that educated women are more likely to become better income generators thereby increasing their economic power. She was strongly of the opinion that education of girls goes with decrease in maternal and infant mortality rates while children of educated women have a higher probability of getting good education, which increases their knowledge towards socio-political development of society. Ciroma also addressing Lucky Igbinedion, the former Governor of Edo State posited that the positive gains of educating the girl child are enormous and therefore opined that it was because of the enormity of the gains that world leaders at the Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal agreed to eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education and achieve gender equality in education by 2015.

“It is also within the same context that, two out of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to end world poverty, have laid emphasis on Education for All and especially the girl-child”, she said.

1 comment:

  1. The year 2010 presents a crucial moment to assess the ground covered over the last decade and the distance that remains to be traversed over the next five years. In fact, that is just what the United Nations General Assembly will do when it meets this September. How well is India placed to catch the MDGs bus? The Government of India has just done its own assessment