Still an endless search in the North
Aisha, 14, would be getting married next month. She has never been to school, and not interested in going either, even if she gets somebody to sponsor her. Currently, she earns a living selling nunu and fura to students and staff of the Sokoto State University (SSU) and the neighbouring communities. By next month, she would be leaving her parent’s home, not to acquire any economic skill, but for her husband’s house.
According to her, what preoccupies her mind now is that movement. Surprisingly, she is not disturbed that she has never been to school. Neither is she jealous seeing her mates going to school.
Aisha is like many other girl-children in the North of Nigeria, especially, the North-west. Statistics from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed that in 2012, less than 20 per cent of children aged 36-59 months attended some form of organised early childhood education programme. Also, while access averaged 42 per cent in the South-west and 41 per cent in the South-east, it was only six per cent in the North-west and five per cent in the North east.
In some Southern states, the proportions were as high as 75 per cent in Lagos and 80 per cent in Anambra, but less than two per cent of children in Yobe and Borno states went through pre-primary education.
It was said that the overall primary school Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) in Nigeria, in 2013 was 56.7, well below the averages for Sub-Saharan Africa; 61 per cent for boys and 57 per cent for girls.
Some northern states, such as Jigawa, Kebbi, Katsina, Sokoto and Yobe have primary school NER of less than 25 per cent, while some southern states that include, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Oyo and Rivers have NER of more than 80 per cent.
Instructively, some northern states have a much higher gender gap in primary school enrolment. For the South west, the NER at primary level is almost identical for boys and girls, but in the North west, the NER for girls is only three quarters of the boys.
Speaking on the challenges of girl-child education, a lecturer at the Department of Educational Foundation, Federal University, Gusau, Zamfara State, Dr. Chidinma Anya, noted that in some communities and families, girls are often denied education and compelled to marry early, principally because they believe that education of the girl-child is a waste of resources, since their bride price may not cover the cost of their training, and if married, they would move to a different family to stay and serve there.
She said girls are, therefore, asked by their parents to hawk to gather enough money for their would-be homes instead of attending schools.
According to her, many children of northern extraction are culturally indoctrinated and made to believe that education, especially western, is not needed and thus advised to run their lives without it, as they are made to believe that their place of fulfilment is in their husbands’ home and since education is not needed to marry or make babies, they should just focus on getting the right man, accepting the parent’s choice and making such a man happy. “This level of indoctrination has made the average girl-child to focus on marrying, rather than studying. Thus, even the few that are privileged to go to school, cannot wait for the right time, so, whenever the man arrives, they drop out of school.”
The position of Anya was corroborated by some students, who shared their experience schooling in the state. They revealed, how, at one point in their primary and secondary school programmes, female students dropped out only to hear that they are married days after. It was gathered this is more pronounced among those who attended public schools.
Aisha Kabiru, a student of Sokoto State University, recalled that as a primary five pupil at Blue Crescent Primary School, two girls (twins), dropped out of school, not because of any other thing, but to get married.
She further said that some of her secondary school mates also got married in school, while a good number were married immediately after completing their secondary education. According to her, some parents of northern extraction often feel that sending their children to school will get them spoilt.
For the young lady, this is due to lack of exposure on the part of the parents, who are usually not educated. Kabiru, however, said that some are not in school, because their parents cannot afford to finance their education.
Though she has had suitors, her parents insisted that studies come first. She, nonetheless, disclosed that when she is in her third year in the university, that she would be ready to give marriage a thought.
Rosemary Igra, an Isoko lady from Delta State, was born and brought up in Sokoto State. According to her, majority of her classmates were male with the female students less than 30 per cent of the class.
She said that majority of her female classmates got married on completing their secondary education including, many she knew who stayed in Minanata area of the state, getting married even while in primary school.
Igra said that many of the girls are trained with the mind set that they needed to get marry early, which she feels is probably re-inforced by religion.
Another lady, Nana, also a student of the state university, said that her friend got married, while they were in Junior Secondary Two, only for her to divorce about three years after. She noted that divorce is on the high side, especially, among girls who got married early.
She said some of the parents believe that female children, who wished to be educated, should do so in their husband’s houses. She said some husbands often deny their wives further education after marriage, because they feel they will mingle with boys.
For her, the way forward is to encourage parents to put their children in school, while government must make education truly free, especially, at primary and secondary levels.
Shema Aminu, a 200-level student of Sokoto State University, said some of her classmates dropped out of secondary school to get married, a trend, she is not happy about. While demanding better deal for the girl-child, she pleaded that concerted effort from government is needed to promote and encourage more girls to go to formal schools, because they are really lagging behind. She also feels that many parents, who appreciate education, often give priority to male child-education.
Aminu called on parents not to put pressure on their female children to marry early, and they should be made to understand that educating the girl-child does not mean she will not get a suitor.
The preference of parents, who want their female children to get married early may be born out of the prevailing culture in the north, with men having penchant for marrying young girls. Two young men, a graduate and an undergraduate, who spoke with our reporter on the kind of lady they wished to marry, said they prefer girls not more than 17 years old.
Saadu Machido, a 300-level student in one of the universities in Sokoto State, who is yet to marry, said when he finally decides to settle down, he would go for a secondary school leaver, somebody who is not more than 16 years old.
According to him, he would not marry a graduate like him, because he does not want a lady that is wise and knows as much as he does. He said that after marrying a fresh secondary school graduate, he would allow the lady to further her education if the lady is interested.
If after getting married and they give birth to a female child, would he give out the lady for marriage immediately after her secondary school, he affirmed in the positive, especially, if there is a suitor.
Ismail Ahmed, a graduate, who works with the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, would be getting married soon to a lady whose age is not more than 18 years old. He is not marrying a graduate like himself, because there is nothing to teach that person.
Aisha Aliu, a student of the Sokoto State University, who is from Zamfara State, is the last born of her parents. Aliu said she is in school, because the first child of her parents, a girl too, went to school courtesy of her uncle.
Aliu said the other girls that were given birth to along with the eldest daughter did not go to school, as her father did not appreciate sending his female children to school. But after her eldest sister graduated and became a doctor, he had a rethink because of the respect the lady now commands in the community especially compared with her girls who did not go to school.
As a result of this, her father now encouraged other her to go to school. According to her, she attended private schools during her primary and secondary education and none of her classmates dropped out to marry. She said the only girl that got married before she completed secondary education did so, because she lost her parents.
Speaking on the low school enrolment rate of girls in the north, a professor of education at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Mamman Audu Wasagu, said it could be linked to several factors, which include: cultural factor, often mixed up with religion, poverty and illiteracy.
“For a long time now, even the boy-child in the north, the typical, uneducated parent does not believe in western education. They tend to mix it up with religion, thinking it is something for the unbelievers and then to make matters worse, in the 70s and early 80s, when some of the female children went to school, the mode of dressing, lifestyle of the west that the children copied tend to discourage parents, as they felt their girls, once they go through western education, they get spoilt.”
He also stated that many parents use the female children to feed the house by engaging them in small businesses, so, the girls are usually in the markets when they ought to be in school.
“Go to Central Market, Kopandoya, you will see a lot of girls of school age selling groundnut that is not more than N200. For some of the parents, that is the source of their income and they use the females in the house to get the money. For some other parents, it is that little money from the proceeds of the trading or hawking that the girl will use to buy things for her marriage.”
The professor of education also feels that illiteracy is a major issue, because parents of these girls did not go to school, so, they hardly see any value in education. “As far as the typical northern man is concerned, as soon as the girl finishes secondary school, she should get marry, even among the educated. And if they want her to continue her education, for some of the educated parents, they will insist she gets married first. And we know after secondary school, the age is just 18 years and that is not the best time for a child to get married.”
Wasagu noted that there is a misconception that the girl child would get spoilt if she is allowed to go to school. “But now, we have come to realise that even when they do not go to school, in the process of hawking, trading in the market and running errand, they could get spoilt too. And it is something to really work on in a campaign.”
Since 2004, the Federal Government passed the Universal Basic Education law that made it compulsory and free for all children to be in school, at least, to junior secondary school. The state governments keyed into this project, but that law seems not working in the north, with many children, especially females, not in school.
Wasagu said the policy has not been followed to the later in terms of the compulsion and freeness, because the school administrators still collect some little money, which is a lot to some of the parents.
The former provost of the Federal College of Education, Kastina, however, disagreed with the notion that government is failing in its duty, especially, in not fully implementing the UBEC policy. “It (government) has a good policy, but the implementation is the issue. So, we need to put heads together to ensure that this policy is implemented, because if it is implemented properly we would not have this problem in this country.”
As part of the way forward to check the trend of low enrolment and dropouts, the professor of education argued that religious leaders need to intervene by educating the uneducated, especially, that religion is not a barrier to western education and that religion even encourages going out to acquire western education, no matter where. “In one of the holy books, the prophet said we should go as far as China to acquire knowledge, and at that time, Saudi Arabia to China was very far.
“Religious leaders should let the people know that what the prophet was saying was not to go to get Islamic education only, but also western education. Religious education is to serve God, but western education is to live and survive. So, religious leaders should engage in correct teaching and awareness, because some people are misleading the uneducated ones.”
Wasagu also feels that a campaign to change the erroneous thought of a northern man that a girl is meant to grow and get married to be a full time house wife is critical, if the low enrolment rate would be tackled. “Except now that some of the kids of the elite have become medical doctors, engineers, lawyers and other parents are now envious, saying so our girls can also be this. Though, there is a little bit of improvement, there is a lot of work to be done,” he said.
He also feels teachers have a role to play, because in some of the rural schools, the teachers do not to go to school and when they do, sometimes, they do not teach. Due to this, the parents and the children do not see reason and feel encouraged to be in school consistently.
This, he also feels, is because there is no sense of sacrifice, many always think about what they can get and not what they can give.
According to him, the implications of the girls not in school and marrying early are many. He said it has been proven that many of the early marriages result in Vesico Vagina Fistula (VVF) problem. “Then you find out that they have too many children they cannot care for, as a result, you find a lot of these children on the street, because the parents have more than they can take care of. There is no plan and control and once they get them too many, they tell the children to go find food for themselves.
“It is because these kids grow up without education and food, and a hungry man, is an angry lion. When they see anybody doing well, they do not know how he got his wealth, they see the person as their number one enemy and that is part of the reason Boko Haram found a breeding ground and recruit these jobless people, create a big security problem for the nation.”
To verify if the girls were truly in market when they ought to be school, the reporter visit one of the local markets during school hours, Babuanya, where girls were seen hawking and displaying wares for sale in school uniforms. None of them was willing to comment even with an interpreter.
A senior lecturer in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Lagos, Dr Olamijulo Joseph Ayodeji, noted that the level of education of the girl-child has impacts on quality of upbringing, because ultimately the level of education often determines the economic power of the woman, which invariably impacts on the knowledge she has and access to healthcare.
From the physical point of view, she stated that the girl bride is not fully developed, due to this; she could have difficulties like prolonged and unexpected labour, which could lead to VVF. “And there are psychological and emotional consequences on the health of the lady.”
Ayodeji further said that the level of education often helps the woman to know the right steps to take that will impact positively on the child’s health and care. With education, a lady, he said, is less vulnerable to harmful health practices. “She may also have to wait for the husband and relatives for proper care for the child, which may cause unnecessarily delays, considering such girls are married to polygamous families,” he said.
An Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Lagos, Esther Akinsola, stated that girls of about 13 to 16 years are teenagers and not yet adult. “They are more considered as children than adult, though they are in transition. And it is child abuse to marry such girls.”
She noted that such girls are not emotionally prepared for the task for marriage, as they are not mature enough to carry the burden of marriage and child birth.
“So, it is forcing maturity on them and because of that, they can be emotionally damaged, which would negatively affect their mental health. Often, they are given away against their wish. Ordinarily, if they are asked, they would not want to get married at such early age.”
The clinical psychologist noted that, because physically and emotionally, these girls are not ready for the burden of marriage and childbirth, they are also physically damaged; their uterus, womb and vagina could be damaged.
She also said that because their body is not physically matured to carry pregnancy, they suffer from miscarriage, birth complications if they are able to carry such pregnancy through and likely have stillbirth and the emotional trauma that goes with that.
“Definitely, they do more harm to them than good by giving a child away early in marriage. If peradventure, their womb, vagina are damaged, they become outcast and their so-called husband would likely abandon them as they may not be able to give birth again. So, just as it causes them physical damaged, it leads to emotional and psychological damage.”
Akinsola further argued that because these girls are not well equipped emotionally for marriage, they cannot take care of the child when it finally comes, because they themselves are children, as they do not understand what it means and takes to be a mother, even when they give birth to normal children. “They would be very poor at managing motherhood,” she said.
When asked if the girls who go through grooming for marriage are likely to suffer emotional instability too, she used two scenarios as feedbacks to the answer. “You know what happens in a class when a teacher speaks above the student’s head? He or she cannot quite comprehend, because he does not have the mental capacity, which leads to poor performance. It is same thing that happens to these girls who are said to have been groomed for marriage. They are grooming somebody who is not physically and emotionally ready for marriage,” she said.
Akinsola further said that the issue of giving out girls for marriage could also be likened to wanting a three month old baby to walk, when the legs are not strong enough to carry the body. “In the process of doing that, the children would have knocked kneels and very bow legs. That is the kind of thing that can happen to girls who are not mentally and physically ready to carry a burden and you are trying to groom the person to carry the burden. The burden would be poorly carried and there could be deformity that goes along with that,” she said.