On International Day of the Girl Child in the middle of the global pandemic which has seen the project of ensuring the systems to empower women and girls plummet, I am lending my voice to our equal future by celebrating girls’ right to education. We must eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls and build the will of leaders to commit to a course of action—and an intentional and deliberate community of practice—that helps girls to rise, from respectful care from birth and the cradle, to productive and prosperous age.
Girls face multiple challenges purely because of their age and gender. Around 62 million girls around the world have no access to education and less than 40% of countries provide girls and boys with equal access to education. From being denied an education to experiencing teenage pregnancies and being forced into child marriage, girls face a myriad of obstacles that prevent them from realising their full potential.
In Nigeria, 10.5 million of the country’s children aged 5-14 years are not in school, and in some states in the north, more than half of the girls are not enrolled in schools at all. With the impact of Covid-19, children who were already most at risk of being excluded from a quality education have been most affected. Girls are more likely to be pulled out of school to take care of the family at home during the pandemic, and studies have also found girls’ access to mobile internet is 26% lower than for their male peers. Researchers found that previous epidemics have forced more girls than boys to halt their studies, which impacted economic prospects for a generation of young women.
Yet we know that when a girl is educated, she is enabled, empowered and engendered to realise her full potential.
This was why, in my subnational advocacy as the First Lady of Kwara State from 2003 to 2011, I had deliberately and historically made it a point of principle and action to lend my voice and effort in mobilising women’s groups and cooperatives to advocate strongly for the retention of the girl child in education. I also advocated for the domestication and implementation of Child Rights legislation through the Kwara State Child Rights Law of 2007, the Kwara State Safe Maternity Services Law of 2010, a strategic partnership with NAPTIP to strengthen anti trafficking protocols, and the establishment of a framework to deliver universal health coverage through the Kwara State Community Health Insurance Scheme. By the time I hosted Nigeria’s first Child Rights Conference in 2010, it was clear that the results went deeper than benefits to education, health and societal wellbeing that earned Kwara State the UNICEF accolade of being “fit for a child,” as the first of Nigeria’s 19 northern states to reach this ambitious standard. By 2011, Kwara State was not only recognised as the state whose girls were the oldest in the nation at their first sexual encounter, but also recorded over 35% of women in elective and appointive positions at federal and state levels, including several Senior Ministers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, namely Amina Ndalolo, Halima Tayo Alao, Olufunke Adedoyin, and an ambassador, Nimota Akanbi.
Nationally, I lent my voice, effort and resources to the successful passage of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Law, the rights of women to inheritance, the Breastmilk Substitutes Law, legislation to protect students in tertiary institutions from sexual harassment , and raising an evidenced body of analysis to challenge a perplexing constitutional amendment aimed at treating a married minor as an adult for renunciation of citizenship. The journey has also registered disappointments, significantly, the failure of Nigeria’s Gender Equality and Opportunities Bill. Unsurprisingly, the effects of conflict and unrest have been sharply highlighted in Nigeria’s North-East since the 2014 abductions of the Chibok Girls, and many more victims of enforced disappearances, necessitating the development of a dedicated strategy for the prevention of sexual violence in conflict PSVI, in support of United Nations Resolution 1325 though engaging globally with the United Kingdom-France PSVI Consultations and UNWomen African Women Leaders Network, and regionally with the African Union and Ecowas Consultations.
Health and wellbeing are indivisibly intertwined with educational opportunities in powering a healthy, prosperous and productive future, so to raise a pipeline of confident girls, the percolation of tree-top advocacy must cascade to frontline grassroots action, thus My Wellbeing Foundation Africa knows that an expanded investment in girls’ education, in providing personal social and health education not only equips girls with skills and knowledge to grow and prosper, but it helps their siblings, family, and wider community to thrive as well.
Girls who stay in school are more likely to support themselves, look after their health, avoid early marriage and early pregnancy and contribute more to society. That’s why one of the ways we support the Girl Declaration and a girls’ right to education is through our primary schools and adolescent PSHE WASH program sessions. Our approach is unique: powered by the professional interlocutory capacities of our groundforce of professionally qualified community midwives, we work directly with schools and communities to help them create a better and healthier future for their children and themselves.
While the confidence to initiate and cascade innovation may come from being fortunate to be born in circumstances where the opportunities to rise and thrive are guaranteed, I am encouraged that we can build a community of better practice for all. That notion is evocative of this picture of myself and two childhood friends from 1969, when we had just celebrated what the world now recognises to be a key milestone and measurement of development and demographic functionality: the age of 5 years. The milestone underscores the importance of the goal that every girl may survive and thrive, with her full complement of rights, to transform her future, and the collective rise of girls and women in our nation.
Today, Sefi Atta, to my left, (born January 1964) is a prize-winning Nigerian-American author, playwright and screenwriter, who qualified as a Chartered Accountant in England, a Certified Public Accountant in the United States, and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Her books have been translated into many languages. Sefi was a juror for the 2010 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and has received several literary awards for her works, including the 2006 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In 2015, a critical study of her novels and short stories, Writing Contemporary Nigeria: How Sefi Atta Illuminates African Culture and Tradition, was published by Cambria Press. Also a playwright, her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and her stage plays have been performed and published internationally.
Equally, Obiageli Annabel Zeinab Okigbo (born 1964 Ibadan), grew up in Nigeria until the age of 16. She continued her studies in Kent, then graduated from Oxford Brooks University with a BA in Architecture and pursued her post-graduate studies at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. She practiced architecture in London, Rome and Paris until 1994. In 1995 she moved to Brussels where she now lives. Expanding her reach into the visual arts, she began developing her work on a theoretical level through painting and has consequently exhibited in Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Dubai and Belgium including two major solo exhibitions in Lagos, 2003 and London, 2007. Obi is President of the Christopher Okigbo foundation which she established in 2005, which is tasked with researching and preserving the legacy of Christopher Okigbo, poet (1932-1967).
These women are the exemplar that the female gender, given gender-equal and equitable opportunities, will rise. By investing in girls, every girl can be that example. With an eye for achieving all that we have set out for the United Nations’ Decade of Delivery, we must embed the notion and girl declaration that girls’ progress means Sustainable Development Goals’ progress.
Before, during and after crises like the pandemic, we must stand with her: we must build a skilled girl force and support that girl force to be unscripted and unstoppable, and lend our voice to our equal future. On International Day of the Girl Child, and always, we must respect and protect her mind, her vision, her spirit. Empowered and educated, girls can do anything they set their minds to. Lets encourage girls to shape the world they want to live in, achieving generation equality, and our planet 50/50 goals, now and today.