Nigeria’s girl child is a resident of hell!
By Ray Ekpu
Recently, the world marked the International Day of the Girl-Child. Who is the girl-child and why is she singled out for attention throughout the world? That is what we plan to deal with here today. A girl-child is a biological female child who is any age from zero to 18 years. She is not only different from a boy-child but her needs are also different; her level of vulnerability is higher and many families and communities tend to treat her differently from, and in a manner that is inferior to, the way they treat the boy-child.
Nigeria is regarded as a country of the young. About 46% of Nigeria’s population are under age 15 and about 51% of that population are said to be girls. Nigeria accounts for more than one in five out-of-school children anywhere in the world and more than 50% of that number are girls. Even though primary school education is largely free and compulsory in Nigeria’s public schools about 33% of eligible children are out of primary school. Here, again, girls constitute a higher number of absentees than boys. And because education is the highway to good jobs, good income and a higher standard of living many uneducated young girls live the life of the underclass. They are subjected to child labour, sexual and physical violence, female genital mutilation, forced incestuous sexual relationships, period poverty, learning poverty, gender bias, multi-dimensional poverty, adolescent pregnancy and stigmatisation, poor health and low immunity. These constitute the lot of the girl-child in Nigeria. Even though the Child Rights Act was enacted in 2003 and 34 states have domesticated it, there are still abundant issues of child abuse, child labour, child trafficking and child marriage etc. that demand the attention of all forward looking and civilised human beings in Nigeria in the implementation of the provisions of the Act. The remaining two States, Kano and Zamfara, that have reportedly not yet domesticated the Act should be encouraged to do so, as doing so will help to break down the wall of prejudice against the girl-child as she emerges from the tunnel of infancy.
In Nigeria, girls suffer more than boys in terms of missing out on education. In the North East of Nigeria, only 41% of eligible girls receive primary education while the figure in the North West is 47%. In the North East and North West 29% and 35% of Muslim children respectively receive Quaranic education which does not include basic education skills such as literacy and numeracy. That is the weird message of the Boko Haram disciples who say that they do not want western education to be taught in places where they are in control. And because of the lack of the liberating influence of education in some parts of the North Boko Haram is able to recruit young, uneducated people including girls as bombers. The issue here is not religion. It is the lack of education. There is a sizeable chunk of moslems in the South West but because of the widespread education there it is unlikely that Boko Haram can recruit young people to work for them as bombers. Very unlikely. That is why we do not have Boko Haram making any impact in the South West.
In many parts of Nigeria especially in poor and illiterate homes the education of the girl-child is downgraded in favour of that of the boy-child. The reasoning in those families is that the girl-child can be married off and bride price received for the maintenance and support of the family. The bride price can also be utilized in sending the boy-child in the family to school because he is considered to be more likely to be more useful to the family than the girl-child. In addition, it is felt that the girl-child will drop the family’s name when married while the boy-child will wear it like a badge throughout his life time. In other words, the boy will even though get married to a girl who will take on the family’s name and give birth too to children who will bear the family’s name. So the name of the family will be elongated, not truncated. In that case members of the family can always speak with chin-jutting pride about their family. In that case the family will be on the right side of the tracks. It doesn’t occur to those who reason this way that in today’s world many women choose to bear hyphenated names, combining their own family names with their husband’s name. In addition, their husbands have also become part of the girl’s original family in which case they can do for the family what any other member can do. The family’s dreams can then become more real than specks in the horizon, thanks to a compassionate son in law. Whenever the son in law comes visiting the children in the family will be anxious to follow him like eager puppies. That is the fringe benefit that comes from the girl’s education and marriage.
Young girls are maltreated in several other ways in Nigeria. Nigeria is said to have about 20 million girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation because their parents think that is the way to prevent the girls from being promiscuous later in life. On the other hand, the girls whose genitals have been mutilated tend to smell the rancid odour of frustration because they cannot put the genie back in the bottle. They have been thrown into the abyss of unexpected grief. Their paroxysm of outrage can hardly be assuaged.
Perhaps one of the worst things that has befallen young girls in Nigeria is child marriage. Nigeria is said to be one of the countries with the highest number of child brides in Africa, 23 million of them were married as children. Child marriage is the marriage, formal or informal, between a child and an adult or even between a child and another child. This sort of marriage is induced by poverty, the need for a bride price which can be used to support the family; it can also come from cultural, religious and traditional causes, fear of the child remaining unmarried into adulthood, illiteracy, kidnapping. Many countries particularly developing countries go through this route. It is estimated that each year some 12 million girls globally get married under the age of 18. However, the countries with high rates of child marriage are Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea, Central African Republic, Mozambique and Nepal.
According to the Untied Nations Population Fund, the factors that promote and reinforce child marriage are economic survival strategies, inequality, seeking land or property deals, or settling disputes, protecting family honour, insecurity during famine or epidemics, family ties in which marriage is a means of consolidating powerful relations between families. All of these factors are present in the consummation of child marriage in Nigeria. There has been a raging uptick in child marriage in Nigeria in recent years because of the high level of violence that has been witnessed in the country in the last one decade. Many of these marriages occur when young school girls are abducted and taken into captivity. Almost all of them are married by their abductors. We have seen some of the school girls who have been rescued coming back with children, products of forced marriages while they were in captivity. These abductors seek to satisfy the venial whims of their sexual gluttony by marrying as many of the captured girls as they wish. They are in a situation of happy vulgarity. These girls, who are between the rock and the hard place, have no choice but to become willing partners in a non-consensual relationship. In the setting in which they find themselves they cannot assume a pose of superior disdain otherwise they will be dead. For them they are in an irreversible moment of no return except by some celestial sleight of hand.
These child marriages, whether voluntary or forced, have their drawbacks. These drawbacks include obstetric fistulae, child miscarriage, premature birth, sexually transmuted diseases including cervical cancer, sexual isolation and stigma, domestic violence, malnutrition, marital rape and low immunity for the children of the child-mother. As of 2006 about 20% of the school dropouts in Nigeria were the result of child marriage. But much as its disadvantages are well known there has been a lack of political will to combat it.
Nigeria is a country that thrives on patriarchy and gender inequality. All the bills taken to the 9th National Assembly on gender equality were thrown out unpassed by the male dominated National Assembly. The President of the 10th National Assembly, Chief Godswill Akpabio has said that those bills will be resurrected for consideration by the current National Assembly. A lot of work will have to be done to get those bills passed because even the current National Assembly is overwhelmingly male dominated. Except the legislators feel an unsettling urgency to move Nigeria into the 21st century by keeping chauvinism at bay the effort will not be worth the trouble. If the legislators avert their minds to the fact that women constitute about 50% of our population and the girl-child a huge chunk of that then they will do the needful, by passing laws that will protect women especially the girl-child.
Ray Ekpu, a veteran journalist, prose craftsman, prolific writer, renowned columnist, analyst and informed commentator.
He is a co-founder of Newswatch Publications.