I am delighted to have been asked by Oxfam-Nigeria to deliver this lecture, My Voice, Our Equal Future, which is the theme of this year’s International Day of the Girl Child 2020. It is heartwarming to have a day set aside to reflect on the present and future of girls regardless of their context or background. We cannot contemplate any sustainable future without giving thought to the lives of millions of young girls who need to be the leaders of both today and tomorrow.
Twenty-five years ago, as a young woman, I attended the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. During the Beijing preparations, the UN had almost concluded on eleven Critical Areas of Concern for the Beijing Platform for Action. It was African governments, pushed by African women’s rights activists who demanded that the Girl-Child had to be added to the Platform for Action, hence the 12 Critical Areas of Concern.
Back then, the main issue for many African countries was making the case in poor communities for girls to be able to go to school. If families are forced to choose between boys and girls, they consider the boys as a more worthwhile investment. Twenty-five years after, we have taken ten steps forward on this issue, but sadly, another twenty back.
According to UNICEF, ‘Girls suffer more than boys in terms of missing out on education. In the north-east of Nigeria only 41 per cent of eligible girls receive a primary education, 47 per cent in the north-west. In north-eastern and north-western states, 29 per cent and 35 per cent of Muslim children, respectively, attend Qur’anic education, which does not include basic education skills such as literacy and numeracy.
These children are officially considered out-of-school by the Government’.There are at least 13m out of school children in Nigeria and 60% of them are girls.In Southern Nigeria, there is good news, the enrolment of girls outnumbers that of boys in several States. However, there is still a challenge keeping the girls in school all over the country due to a range of factors such as poverty,early marriage, sexual violence, teenage pregnancy, trafficking, family responsibilities and so on.I have the following recommendations:
- WE NEED TO LISTEN TO GIRLS
What do girls want? What do they need? How can it be done for and with them? As policy makers, practitioners and parents, we need to constantly check-in with them and determine how we can address their needs as expressed by them. Girls have a right to protect themselves and their bodies, they have a right to say no to abuse, and they have a right to refuse to be drawn into transactional sexual relationships or early marriage.
- LEGAL AND POLICY FRAMEWORKS ARE IMPERATIVE
The national legal framework for child protection in Nigeria is the Child Rights Act of 2003, but to date, only 24out of 36 states have adopted the Act. For the States that have adopted the Act, implementation is hampered by a lack of political will and appropriate resources. It is through these frameworks that we can know how serious our governments are at Federal and State levels at safeguarding the future of our girls. With the frameworks come the need for adequate human, material, technical and financial resources for implementation.
- THE EDUCATION OF GIRLS NEEDS TO BE PRIORITISED
Special measures should be put in place not only to enable girls go to school but to keep them there. Some of these measures include the following:
- Education for children should be free and compulsory
- Schools should be close enough for girls to attend
- School authorities should be held responsible for violations of girls under their watch
- Girls need to be taught by gender-sensitive teachers who will not perpetuate gender stereotypes and kill their dreams
- Girls who get pregnant in school should not be expelled, they should be allowed to continue their education.
- Girls should be encouraged to learn STEMsubjects
- In addition to formal education, girls also need to learn skills to enable them build financial resilience
- All schools need to have adequate security, with male employees screened to ensure prior sex offenders are not in care of students
- Toilet facilities and water should be accessible for the students
- Sanitary protection should be subsidized and provided for those unable to afford them.
- The workload of girls needs to be eased at home
- SEXUAL VIOLENCE SHOULD BE ADDRESSED COMPREHENSIVELY
Again, according to UNICEF, a national survey in 2014 found that 6 out of 10 children reported having suffered one or more forms of violence before reaching 18 years of age, with 70 per cent of those experiencing multiple incidents of violence. Reported cases of sexual abuse of girls and minors has been on the rise at a very alarming rate.
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, there were many cases of sexual abuse and even murders reported and the cases continue on a daily basis. Everyone has to be a stakeholder in ensuring that we keep our girls safe from sexual predators, and demonstrate that the cost of breaking the existing laws will attract very stiff penalties. It is also important to reiterate that parents and guardians need to be extra vigilant because sexual predators are getting bolder and more vicious.
- GIRLS THRIVE WHEN THEY HAVE ROLE MODELS AND MENTORS
Accomplished women should go back home whenever they can. They should take an interest in what is happening there. Those of us who have been privileged to have a decent education should join our alumni associations and give back to the current generation of girls.
In these times when we have so many dubious role-models all over social media, which is where a good number of our young girls in urban spaces can be found, we need the presence of mentors who can show them the value of working for everything you need and not expecting a ‘big God’ (a euphemism for a Sugar Daddy) to buy you a good life.
- THE UNFINISHED BUSINESS OF WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT
Girls do not grow up in a vacuum. They have mothers, grandmothers and aunts. We cannot empower girls in a sustainable way without raising the status of women. Women need education and training, economic empowerment and livelihoods, access to healthcare, clean water and shelter.
They need freedom from all forms of violence and they need to have a voice in decision-making. The more empowered a woman is, the more likely it is that her daughters will be empowered too. Governments and development partners concerned about girls should be paying attention to the needs of their mothers too.
- RAISING THE NEW BOYS
We are not raising brilliant, focused, smart and resourceful girls for them to fall into the hands of lazy, entitled and abusive boys who become the men they have to spend their lives appeasing as husbands, colleagues or bosses. We need to raise boys who will respect themselves and girls, and understand that families, communities and nations are built on love, mutual respect and shared responsibilities.
The same way in which we are seeking out role models for girls, we need role models and mentors for boys too, who will teach them positive expressions of masculinity and not the toxic kind we have become all too familiar with.
- WE NEED A NEW, GIRL-FRIENDLY CULTURE
We are proud of our rich cultural heritage as Nigerian people. This should not however be incompatible with wanting a world in which girls will not be considered of less value than boys. We need a new culture that values girls from the moment they are born.
A culture that enables them acquire an education, learn a skill, express themselves, think freely, make informed choices, develop confidence and be able to fulfill their God-given potential. Our girls should grow up loving themselves, their bodies and their skins. Our girls should be passionate about the world they live in and their place in it, not grow up like passive lambs that will be led to slaughter, which is the fate of millions of girls.
We need a culture that sees infinite possibilities in the eyes of every little girl, with a range of opportunities that will enable her grow up to be a Governor, Senator, Nobel Laureate or the next Secretary-General of the World Trade Organisation. That, for me, would be the true meaning of commemorating a day like this.
The ongoing #EndSars movement, a critical call for an end to police brutality and impunity, is being led by some amazing young women. There are several iconic images of powerful women leading the protests and speaking out. Absolutely brilliant. That is what happens when girls are empowered, they grow up to become fearless, resourceful and courageous women, the kind of leaders we need for the change we would like to see.
This is an abridged version of a lecture delivered at the Oxfam-Nigeria Webinar on the International Day of the Girl Child, October 12th 2020.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is the First Lady of Ekiti State, and she can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com