Nigeria: Kugu - Plight of the Marginalised Girl-Child

All of a sudden Rakiya Bako (not real name) began distributing sweets and delicacies to her classmates. There was a gentle scramble among the girls who just a few minutes earlier were seeking shelter from the sun. The handing out of sweets is part of the pre-wedding rites in many Hausa communities, and Kugu near Zaria in Kaduna State is one such community. It is a farming community, but more could be done to raise the quality of life there, especially as this relates to women and the girl-child. The brilliant girl in the JSS 3 class is just about to get married. Her teachers were upset when they noticed what was going on.

One of them recalls the moment "I remember one of our brilliant students from JSS 3. She got married last week. I wept. Amongst her peers she is always the first in the class, I was sitting in my office when the form master came with tears in his eyes saying that the best female student is sharing sweets for her wedding. Most times what we see is girls sharing sweets, and after a period we do not see them in the school." Marriage often signifies the end of education for Rakiya and many other girls like her, and there are many challenges facing the girl-child. High school fees, the relative poverty of the parents who have children in the school, are some of the key challenges in the area. Again, many parents do not place much value on the education of their daughters, and many mothers, in particular, are not keen on the education of the girl-child.Forced marriages frequently occur, and girls tend to drop out of school in SS3, bringing the many years of education to a halt. Husbands of young brides are not willing to keep agreements entered into with his new in laws, in respect of the education of the young wife, and girls often drop out of school without writing JAMB, NECO or WAEC. The challenges are numerous.

All these and more were gleaned from a Town Hall meeting with locals organised to mark the recent International Women's Day celebration by MercyCorps, details of which were made available to Daily Trust. The thrust of the discussion according to MercyCorps 'was to probe barriers limiting the potential of the girl child, and seeking means of breaking these barriers, so as to encourage diversity in business and education.' MercyCorps is an 'international development organization that helps people around the world survive and thrive during crisis and natural disasters.'

It is a 2 hour walk or 'trek' from Kugu to the Government Secondary School where the girls receive an education. Another 2 hour trek gets the girls to their homes later in the day. They normally arrive school more tired than ready to learn, and there is simply no money to buy a bicycle or motorcycle. Come rain or sunshine the girls make the daily 2 hour walk to the school, even when it is not really very convenient for them to do so. A culture which requires that girls carry out most of the household chores such as fetching of firewood, water, cooking, doing the laundry, has a way of affecting the education of the young girl, for her parents may not see much sense in removing her from the house to go to school, when over time she has been very useful doing the chores. In Kugu and nearby communities,when a girl attains the age of puberty, it is felt that she is ready for marriage. Danladi Dodo comments "Another issue is a situation where majority of the teachers are mostly male, there is the tendency for the male teachers to get involved with the female students. There are reported cases from other schools where a teacher got involved with a female student which ended up very badly, and resulted in a teacher losing his job." Married women and girls who are students at the school, are sometimes flogged as a means of punishment. This does not go down well with many of the husbands whose wives school there.

Ayuba Sani Kugu, another resident of Kugu, sheds light on a lingering problem "Poverty is one of the keys that is hindering our girls from going to school. Some parents wish to marry off their daughters rather than enrolling them in school. They feel it is better to marry her off than spending on her education. Another issue is lack of vocational skills training in the schools. If a girl knows that she is gaining additional knowledge that will enable her generate income from her studies, she will be encouraged to study and will encourage her parents to support her. Having a skill will be helpful for her even after her education, and also help her in the matrimonial home."

An earlier intervention in the Kugu community which went by the acronym ENGINE, saw a rise in the number of girls attending school. ENGINE stands for Educating Nigerian Girls In New Enterprises, and is a 3 year (April 2017-March 2020) Adolescent Girls Education Programme, funded by by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) through its Girls Education Challenge(GEC) fund. From an initial 10 girls at the school, the number rose to 50, and the 'ENGINE girls', as they are fondly referred to in Kugu, are seen as promising members of the community. Aisha, an ENGINE girl, speaks on their growth "Girls who were trained on skills acquisition on how to make air freshener, liquid soap, perfumes, doughnut are doing well in the businesses they have ventured into. The profit of the business was used to support their personal needs and families. Some girls used their money in paying for their promotional examination."

She reveals that the introduction of a savings box enabled the girls to start saving money, which helped them to start some form of business at the end of the term .

A comment by Dodo illuminates the changing tone of attitudes to education in the community "I will also ensure I check her school notes even if I am educated or not. This will ensure she attends school. Most often we parents are not concerned with the performance of our girls at school. We are not interested if she goes to school or not. I will ensure I visit the school to follow up on her performance. I will also ensure I motivate her.If she performs very well at school, I will ensure I provide her with a gift to encourage her."

From the interactions with the locals, it was seen that many husbands are willing to support their wives to acquire university education, but the converse is that many still believe that an educated girl would have difficulty finding a husband. But it was shown however that an educated girl in Kugu itself, often attracts an educated husband. The Town Hall meeting decided that there should be increased community awareness on the importance of girl-child education, establishment of a platform for communication between the school and the community, and the promotion of community sponsorship for the education of under privileged girls.

The savings box as well as the ENGINE project have sparked some level of growth within the circle of the girl-child in Kugu, and this new focus on the girl-child as well as on women uplifts a people.

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