Sixty per cent of Nigeria’s illiterate 60 million people are women and this has contributed immensely to the high rate of poverty among women and the high rate of infant and maternal mortality in the country, writes Damilola Oyedele
Halima Mohammed had about 13 children gathered around her, she was teaching them to recite ‘I, J, K, L’, letters of the alphabet, and already the children had learnt to recite letters A-H, even though few of them could recall it. The children ranged from ages five to 13 and were barely clothed. There were also a few women among the students, some with children tied to their backs. A solo and successful recitation elicited applause and shouts from the rest of the learners, with a sense of accomplishment for the soloist.
But none of them could write even the letter ‘A’, the teacher herself could not write, but she knew the alphabet by heart, she told THISDAY.
Other children thronged around the community, barely glancing in the direction of those gathered under the tree. One after the other, the children dispersed to heed the call of their parents while the women left to commence preparation for dinner for their households.
Halima’s husband, Mohammed whose father also bears Mohammed, joined her as her students dispersed. Speaking to THISDAY in smattering Hausa, he expressed pride that his wife is literarily the only ‘educated’ person in Paiko community in Gwagwalada Area Council of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
As far as he is concerned, she is educated and so he loves her for it, he has been named ‘muji n Halima’ (meaning Halima’s husband) a name he bore with pride. If his dinner is late, Mohammed would happily bear the pangs of hunger if his wife is busy teaching her students.
Also speaking in passable Hausa, Halima disclosed that she can recite the alphabet by heart and figures 1-20; both of them know the figures in Hausa. She expressed a wish that she could teach the village children about what would be useful to them and help them migrate to the cities. But she is handicapped for many reasons; the pupils do not regard the ‘classes’ to be serious, they attend as part of their playtime. Their parents too, allow them to attend the classes when they are idle, when they are needed, they are summoned from the ‘classroom’.
That is why the classes take place in the early evening, after farm work and just before preparations for dinner starts. During harvest, classes barely hold.
A few years ago, seven students of the University of Abuja under the auspices of Rural Education Development Initiative (REDI) donated slates, chalks, pencils and exercise books to the students at the time THISDAY encountered this community, but who would teach them to use the materials? The only useful items as far as the villagers were concerned were the bathroom slippers that were also donated to them.
The Community leader, Mallam Aliyu Pada also spoke in Hausa, he said members of the community were some of those displaced in the Bassa crises in Nasarawa State and migrated to that area to start the new community.
He added that they would not mind sending their children to school, but the closest school is about three kilometres away and the little children would have to cross the expressway to get there. Some children have been lost to accidents at a time they were allowed to attend the school. “There was time we chose one adult to accompany them to help them cross the expressway, but he was afraid to cross when he saw the way the vehicles were speeding, so they have stopped going. I think Halima teaches them better and her timing is more convenient for the parents,” he said.
“All we do is a little farming, so people prefer to keep their children at home when it rains so they help out on the farm. But we do not want them to be poor like we are; we want them to be able to help others just as these children from the university have helped us.”
Pada added that the community would provide land for whoever is willing to build a school there.
If nothing is done, the children born in this community would join the population of 64 million Nigerians who are illiterate. Already the situation is this; even though the community members think formal education is important and would help their children to lead better lives in the future, they cannot afford to make the sacrifices required. If their children get to attend school, their parents cannot afford to buy uniforms and educational materials for the high number of children per family.
The National Policy on Education (2004) stipulates that it is the responsibility of the government to provide pre-primary education, to promote training of qualified teachers, and to ensure full participation of government and communities in pre- primary education. It is also the duty of the government to set and monitor minimum standard for early child education.
But even if the government provides all that is required to make education free, some children would still not be able to go to school. Case in point; the children in Paiko community, their parents cannot afford to buy them school uniforms and shoes which are considered luxury items in the community. If perhaps by some intervention, their parents are able to provide these, they still cannot afford to let the children go to school because of the dangers in crossing the expressway to reach the school.
In many rural areas especially in northern Nigeria, many still prefer to keep their daughters at home to help with the housework, while the male children are allowed to go to school. Also such rural parents believe that the girl would end up in the ‘kitchen’ anyway, so of what essence is it wasting little available resources on her? This line of thinking has widened the gap so much that girl child education requires urgent attention from the government.
Illiteracy leads to a cycle of poverty, children of peasant farmers who need their children to work for them on the farms, are likely to end up becoming peasant farmers too. Children of nomads are likely to suffer the same fate, but it is women who bear more of the brunt in the fallout of this cycle of poverty.
Sixty per cent of Nigeria’s illiterate are women. The biggest affliction brought on illiterate women is poverty. Because many of the girls who fall into these categories do not attend school, they marry early and start to have children. They become prone to VVF in several cases where they start to bear children early, and are abandoned by family and friends.
Girls’ education has other important benefits for women, health and communities; education can increase women’s livelihoods and can improve health.
Several studies have linked a lack of education to the high rate of infant and maternal mortalities. A cross sectional (Africa, Asia and Latin America) survey by the World Health Organisation in 2010, showed that women with some level of education had healthier lives as they determine factors that affect their health. A woman who is educated is likely to have less number of children, with significant spacing between them, much more than her uneducated counterpart.
“Women's educational levels (relative to those of men) have been found to be associated with maternal death. There is a positive relationship between levels of maternal education and health service use, even in adverse family or socioeconomic situations. Furthermore, lack of education is highlighted as one of a number of stressors (along with limited money and decision-making power) affecting women during pregnancy and childbirth, creating vulnerability and increasing the likelihood of negative outcomes,” the report summarised.
Some Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and development partners have taken it upon themselves to push for girl child education even for the married girls in northern Nigeria. Bixby Centre for Population, Health and Sustainability of the University of California has established a research centre in Zaria, Kaduna State to strategise to support girls in school. As the project commenced, they discovered that a less number of the girls who were doing well academically dropped out of school to get married. They also discovered that when the female children are exposed to women with ‘decent jobs’, they aspire to be like these women and are therefore likely to take their studies more seriously.
The National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non- Formal Education (NMEC) can provide some succour for all those who did not for one reason or the other benefit from the formal school system. A parastatal under the Ministry of Education with the Minister of State, Mr. Nyesom Wike as supervising minister, it recently declared its intention to step up its campaign to provide non-formal and adult education for those who need it as part of efforts to eradicate illiteracy in Nigeria.
The Executive Secretary of the Commission, Alhaji Jibril Yusuf Paiko, said one of the first major steps being undertaken by the Commission is the upcoming launch of an independent National Literacy Trust Fund to be accessed by stakeholders in the non-formal education sector for provision of life skills and vocational training/equipment for the illiterates.
Already, a committee has been put in place to fast track the move against illiteracy in women and to promote the education of the girl child especially in northern Nigeria.
Pa iko recently embarked on advocacy visits to various stakeholders among who were some state governments, National Orientation Agency (NOA), and National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), religious and traditional leaders.
During a visit to the National Council for Women Societies (NCWS) in Abuja recently, he lamented the high percentage of illiterate women on Nigeria and appealed for partnership to use the council as a platform to reach out to more stakeholders and personalities that can influence women education. “If a woman is educated, a nation is educated, but if a man is educated, just a person is educated,” he said.
He also briefed the NCWS on the ongoing Adult and Non-Formal Education (NFE) revitalisation programme of which NCWS is on the steering committee.
At the Society Against Prostitution and Child Labour in Nigeria (SAP-CLN) the commission expressed its readiness to set up alternatives to the pattern of living and empowerment of victims of the scourge to enhance their sustenance capabilities. It promised to provide training and equipment to the victims in fashion design, hair dressing, tie and dye, catering and confectionary and in manufacture of cosmetics.
The NGO lamented that parents and guardians of some of the victims have solicited the help of some unscrupulous lawyers and they take the girls away from the vocational/education centres provided for them. The centre also suffers a dearth of teachers/facilitators and translators to overcome communication challenges.
Paiko also solicited the cooperation of the media during a visit to the Federal Radio Cooperation of Nigeria (FRCN). According to him, the commission has been using various strategies like Literacy by Radio, Each one-Teach one, Participatory Rural Appraisal and production of Primers, all radio-based programmes to reach out to its target audience. He also disclosed that another programme to educate women on vocational skills is being packaged as part of the post literacy programme.
He added that the commission is ready to provide and pay teachers, and provide educational materials for stakeholders who establish learning\skill acquisition centres. “Equipment would also be provided for those who get trained in vocational education,” he added.
Advocacy visits of the commission have resulted in it being incorporated into a ten-year literacy projects of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
There is a need for NMEC to intensify its sensitisation and awareness on the advantages of girl child education at the rural level to change orientation of parents and guardians. Aside providing awareness, NMEC should work assiduously with the relevant agencies to ensure the provision of primary schools especially within trekking distances of communities to encourage the level of attendance. Appropriate hygiene facilities should also be provided in the schools.
For women and child bearing mothers who can no longer be incorporated into the formal education system, training in vocational skills relevant to their communities would suffice. For instance, it would almost be a waste to train a northern woman in the skill of hairdressing for certain exotic hairstyles as northern women cover their hair due to cultural orientation. They would be better suited in tailoring, small business know how and other skills.