Paving a Pathway for Adolescent Girls

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As part of measures to address the challenges faced by adolescent girls in the slum communities of Makoko, Otto and Sari-Iganmu, Action Health Incorporated, in partnership with the Lagos State Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, has launched a programme to empower marginalised out-of-school girls, reports Ugo Aliogo

“I learnt hair dressing and my life improved greatly. Then this old previously married man said he wanted me as his wife because he liked my work. It was never my choice to marry him. But it seemed that the Baba gave money to my parents and they forced me to go with him. I was not interested because I hoped to marry a young man of my choice when it was time to settle down. I always felt miserable and cried. I refused food and became ill. He got people to pin me down on the floor and started to rape me in my underpants. I broke a bottle to defend myself. He snatched the bottle from me and cut my body in several places. It was a horrible experience for me,” said a heart broken Rebecca Atedji.

Rebecca Atedji is a teenage girl from the unprivileged suburbs of Iwaya community, in Yaba Local Council Development Area (LCDA). Growing up from a poor background, Atedji’s parents could not afford to give her formal education. To eke out a living for herself and support the poverty stricken family, she took to hawking.

The daily income she realised from the trade was used for the upkeep of the family. But the curtains were gradually falling on the young girl’s dreams and potential. Like her peers, she was supposed to be in school or learning a decent vocational job.

She had always dreamt of a better life to live out her full potential. Despite the odds, she refused to accept the predicament of life which confronted her as the end of the road to a tall dream. She persevered in the face of sufferings and through help of a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) her life was transformed.

When Action Health Incorporated (AHI) visited Iwaya to offer free vocational trainings to young girls in the community, Atedji was part of the young girls who participated in the training. Atedji honed her skills in hair styling. The programme greatly transformed her life from being a hawker to an independent woman. Today, she is using her vocation to give hope to other young girls in her community.

The vocational training programme in Iwaya is one out of many other intervention efforts which AHI has carried out in disadvantaged areas in Lagos State. The intervention programmes are aimed at improving the sexual and reproductive health of marginalised girls in these areas, while ensuring that their income generating skills are strengthened; in order to place them on the path to financial independence.

Recently, AHI in collaboration with the Lagos State Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation and funding support from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) addressed the comparative sexual, reproductive health and rights disadvantages faced by 370 out-of-school adolescent girls aged 17-19 in Ilaje-Bariga, Otto, and Sari-Iganmu, three of the over 100 slum communities referenced in the 2012-2025 Lagos state Development Plan.

The initiative used a combination of interventions which have been empirically proven as cornerstones of empowering out-of-school adolescent girls. Through improving their sexual, reproductive health and increasing their income generation potential, as well as promoting their agency to contribute to change in their community.

To further drive the initiative, AHI with the support of the state government and other partners organised the launch of the Strategic Action Plan (SAP) empower Marginalised Adolescent Girls and the graduation ceremony of 300 Out-of-Schools Girls (OOG) from Makoko, Otto, and Sari-Iganmu at Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos recently.

Speaking at the launch the Wife of the State Governor, Mrs. Bolanle Ambode, said the action plan is a great initiative which draws a specific roadmap for the state to focus on, adding that the plan has ushered in a new beginning for the empowered girls.

She explained that the state government has taken seriously the issues of women empowerment, protection of girls and children, stressing that in active pursuits of its concern for women and girls, the state government through the Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, and Ministry of Justice facilitated the enactment of a law protecting them from domestic violence and rights abuse.

Ambode further stated that under that law, which had been in force for some time now, women and girls are protected and violators of the provisions of the law are liable for prosecution.
She said: “Protecting women and girls is not a job for the government alone. All hands must be on deck to stamp out violence and hardship against them. Economic empowerment is the way forward for those out-of-school adolescent and I am glad that AHI got the clue and took the initiative of training them.

“It is for the purpose of empowering persons like these, that the Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation runs functional skills acquisition centres across the state. There are about 17 such centres located in the five divisions of the state for the convenience of Lagosians.
“At those centres, there are no less than 10 different vocations like computer training, printing technology, furniture and woodwork, catering and hotel management, block laying, shoe making and leather works, adult literacy, cosmetology and others.

“The establishment of the skills acquisition centres by the state government is a deliberate initiative at building society, through direct training of ladies like you, young women, widows and others, in various skills and vocations.”

Ambode appealed to the graduands to imbibe the culture of hardwork and diligence, noting that they are vital principles for business survival, “you must invest your energy and time in any business you want to do. No employee will protect your interest better than yourself.”

In her remarks, the Deputy Regional Director and the Acting Country Representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Ms. Beatrice Mutali, noted that the event would not have come at a more auspicious time for the nation, adding that globally, countries are currently setting in place actions that will ensure the attainment of the Sustainable Development goals (SDGs).

Mutali who was represented by the Head, Lagos Liaison Office and Programme Specialist, Dr. Omolaso Omesehin, stressed that it is crucial to note that the ability of the OOSG to fulfill her potential is a major contributor to the attainment of the SDGs and a corresponding critical development goal for Nigeria.

She further explained that the occasion is a clarion call to all Nigerians (policy makers, legislators, other development partners and NGOs) to work in ensuring that the OOSG is empowered in terms of accessing formal and informal education as well as acquisition of knowledge about her sexual and reproductive health which will enable her reach maximum potential and contribute to the development of the country.

Mutali added: “Investing in the empowerment of these youths is also a veritable means to repaint the demographic dividend.

“Globally, three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia have over a million girls not in school. Unfortunately, Nigeria with over five million girls out-of-school has the highest number of girls’ out-of school. In Nigeria, Lagos State with over two million young girls aged 10-19 years has the highest number of young girls in Nigeria.

“Despite the state’s effort to be a pacesetter in the promotion of girls’ education and women empowerment, a significant proportion of these girls are still out-of-school due to teeming population of the state. Therefore, if significant progress towards the empowerment of the OOSG is achieved in the state, the impact will be felt nationally and indeed on a global scale as well.

“It is well acknowledged the OOSG is one the most vulnerable individuals in our society as they are well accustomed to living in unsafe and insanitary conditions, exposed to gender based violence, coerced sexual encounters or forced marriages, early pregnancy/child bearing and exploitative labour conditions.

“Studies have shown that girls and young women who are empowered with income-generating skills as well as knowledge about their Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) have greater awareness of their rights, confidence and freedom to make decisions that affect their lives. Also to improve their own and their children’s health, which in the long-term hastens the demographic transition to lower birth and mortality rates.”

The Baale of Makoko Community, Prince Raymond Akinsemoyin, commended AHI for continuously championing the cause to improve the situations of girls in slum communities, adding that the state government has also been partnering with the community, in the area of mass literacy programmes.

“They have been ensuring that they train these out-of-school girls who would be impregnated and become a menace to the society. Government is trying to empower them. A lot of these girls are now better off than they were before. It’s making a lot of impact in the society,” he noted.
He explained that in Makoko many of the girls within the school age brackets are encouraged to enroll in primary schools apart from the evening mass literacy class training in order for them to have proper education.

Akinsemoyin stressed that those who opted for vocational trainings were placed under the tutelage of an artisan, noting that at the end of the programme, some of them are empowered and given tools to work with, “government has been providing the funds and in some cases, they go back to monitor activities of these trained girls.”

He added: “I would like government to concentrate on curbing criminal tendencies among the youths in the community. It is getting alarming these days, both the girls and the boys are engaged in drug related activities. They also engage in violent activities and form unhealthy groups which develop into cults. Therefore government should take more time to engage a lot of our youths especially those that are idle who move around in groups.”

The Executive Director of AHI, Mrs. Adenike Essiet, expressed appreciation to the state government, Ford Foundation and UNPFA for the support given to AHI over the years, especially the actualisation of the Action Plan which was launched, noting that this is the beginning of the new opportunities and hope for girls.

“The dreams we had would not have been actualised, if we don’t have the support of our partners to fund it. Lagos State has done well. AHI is proud to be an organisation based in Lagos. We have succeeded in every area we have ventured into because the state government continues to be a visionary government,” she added.

The plan of action makes the case for enhanced inter-sectoral and multi-stakeholders collaboration in efforts to ensure that marginalised adolescent girls are not left behind, alignment with the national and international commitment towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) especially in the state.

It presents a roadmap to guide the state government’s programmes of cooperation with development partners and all relevant stakeholders, by clearly making known the situation of the marginalised adolescent girls and prescribing practical actions for enabling them to achieve their potential and fulfil their human rights.

According to the 2012-2025 state development plans, a large proportion of these marginalised girls live in the blighted areas. The plan explained that both male and females who live in these areas face predicaments associated with poverty, poor living conditions, lack of social safety nets.

Women are the worst affected. Findings conducted from a study of OOS adolescent girls in Iwaya showed that from the 480 girls surveyed, approximately 60 percent could not read, over 50 per cent had experienced physical violence by their partner or parent/guardian in the last 12 months and had no recourse or safe space outside their families or religious communities. Nearly 25 per cent had begun child bearing or were pregnant and only four percent had comprehensive knowledge of Human Immune Virus (HIV).