Coming off the back of THISDAY’s continuous interface with the core thematic areas that the sustainable development goals focus on, Chineme Okafor monitors ‘Educating Nigerian Girls in New Enterprises’, a development programme which is focused on vulnerable girls whose hard life stories are often unknown or perhaps ignored

Beyond the kidnap of young girls from Chibok in Borno State in 2014, and Dapchi in Yobe State in 2018 – two very sticking national misadventures, every other day young girls across Nigeria are abused by members of the communities they live in, and while some manage to come through the outcomes of their abuses, a good number don’t always do, and their stories subsequently buried and forgotten with time.

For now, no one or data can at least say for sure how many young Nigerian girls are subjects of regular communal abuses, but indeed there are girls who have been through this paths, and they are found everywhere in the country including her big cities and affluent states.

On the back of this, and the recently marked International Women’s Day in which the world called for a united ‘Press for Progress’ for women, THISDAY followed up and had interactions with a number of young girls mentored under the ENGINE project to overcome the kind of vulnerabilities their immediate societies put before them.

As a girl-child education programme which aims to transform the lives of Nigerian marginalised girls through education and work, ENGINE has gone into its second phase and now funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) through its Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) Fund.

In its interactions with girls under the project, THISDAY explored the experiences of marginalised adolescent girls who live in mostly urban poor communities around Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, and by particularly doing a content analysis of the report of a child protection mapping exercise that was conducted by the ENGINE project in its inception phase activities, it found that very little is known or said about these girls, yet pretty much of damages are done on their lives by communities that should protect them.

“One girl in my community was raped because she was crippled and nobody could help her” said, one of the adolescent girls who was responding to questions during a focused group discussion organised by the ENGINE II in Abuja.

The focused group discussion was part of the mapping of existing child protection structures in Abuja. It wanted to identify the existing scope and capacity, as well as the reporting mechanisms available within the capital city and the three other focal states of the ENGINE programme for protection of young girls from abuses.

“One man who raped a girl in my community was made to pay the fine of N100,000 and when he didn’t, the chief sent him to the police but he soon came back to the community and nothing happened to him,” another girl contributed to the focus group discussion.

For protection, the identities of these girls were kept from being printed in the paper, however, their contributions readily mirrored the sensibility in the universal call for support against inappropriate behaviours against women as captured in the 2018 theme of the International Women Day – ‘Press for Progress’.

Nonetheless, THISDAY observed a nexus between the contributions of the two girls: the perpetrators of abuse in both situations never got apprehended and eventually ended up going scot-free with no penalties but rather incentives to continue in the acts and perhaps put in danger the lives of other girls.

ENGINE II leads the push

Based on the development and findings, ENGINE II led a significant community action on the occasion of the International Women’s Day 2018, essentially to foreground the state of girl-child and vulnerable adult protection in and around Abuja.

Working closely with its principal implementing partners in the city – principally Tabitha Cumi Foundation; the FCT Agency for Mass Education (AME), Secondary Education Board (SEB), Universal Basic Education Board (UBE), and the Social Development Secretariat, a town hall meeting was held in Dutse Bmuko, an urban poor community in Bwari which is roughly 50 minutes’ drive from Abuja city centre, to bring community attention to how lack of functioning girl-child and vulnerable adult protection structures can be a huge barrier to poor adolescent marginalised girls.

The meeting was also to emphasise that such issues could prevent these girls from transiting from one level of learning to a higher level of learning or from one level of work to a higher level of work, and it afforded especially women and girls an opportunity to participate in a significant community action that sought to discuss barriers to girl-child education and transitions in life.

Further inquiries by THISDAY revealed that though the development had been helped greatly by a culture of silence of mothers in the communities, there has however been a significant shift from that hitherto strong culture of silence amongst the mothers mostly for fear of their young girls being isolated for stigma.

For a long time, this meant that these mothers scarcely spoke up to highlight the troubles of their young female wards, or even reported incidences to the authorities whenever they happened. So, almost freely their young female children were raped, sexually abused, bullied and abused in several physical and psychological dimensions by members of their communities, and words hardly went out about this.

“They don’t make reports because they are shy. And they say if you are raped you won’t see who will marry you. And, their parents want to keep it quiet,” volunteered another girl who participated in the focus group discussions.

Indeed, relevant segments of the ENGINE mapping report noted that such stigmatisation deterred people from reporting rape incidences and indirectly denies community members the benefits they may have gotten from reporting child abuse cases to the relevant authorities.

In the mapping report, Mrs. Rashidat Apahade of the Gender Unit, Education Secretariat Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) who participated in the key informant interviews conducted during the ENGINE mapping exercise in the FCT was variously quoted to have provided a telling perspective of the problem as embedded in the school systems.

Apahade, reportedly said: “However, in schools we see bullying which is in form of punishments by the senior students and also teachers. Sexual abuse or rape, but this is also carried out from home on a student. Child abuse does not only occur at home; it happens in schools too.”

“The students just need a listening ear to be able to speak up. When we go for campaigns and sensitisations in schools we always hear a lot of complaints. Sometimes, they are so many that we cannot listen and help all. And, they wait for us again till we come back to their schools,” she added, underlining how persistent the girls could become to get an ear for their troubles.

“We do school charters and place it in their schools. We train the school Guidance and Counselling (G&C) on what to do when there is an abuse, the teachers know they can’t try abusing students because they will lose their jobs,” Apahade noted.

Juxtaposing analysis with realities

However, a juxtaposition of THISDAY’s content analysis of the mapping report and the reality lived by especially the poorest and marginalised adolescent girls in schools around the FCT showed that an efficient system of punishment may still be lacking in schools despite the efforts put in place.

From its findings, the paper observed that this may largely be so because of the inherent power relations involved in most cases of abuse, that is, victims are often found to enjoy residual protection as a direct result of schools trying to protect their public reputation rather than the victims of abuse, and very often victims, especially women and girls seem to internalise these power dynamics and simply choose to keep embedding the culture of silence.

Similarly, a key informant interview in the mapping exercise granted by Katmun Gomwalk, who is the Assistant Commissioner of Police on Gender, Force Criminal Intelligence and Investigation Department, Area 10, Garki Abuja, underlined the choices by mostly women and girls to keep mute in the face of abuses.

Gomwalk, explained that: “Women and girls have not been empowered to report. They are still ashamed of admitting they are being abused. Most of the reports brought in have been coerced out of the women by social workers who report or neighbours who are not comfortable with the way things are going. We see that delayed reports are not usually helpful in getting evidences and for effective response.”

And so, while Nigeria struggles with her various security challenges and to also provide adequate cover for young girls in the North-east where terrorism has lingered for long now, an aggregation of the views of social issues analysts who spoke to THISDAY on the development however indicated that confronting the challenge of protecting the ‘other vulnerable girls’ across Nigeria would need to go beyond the realm of rhetoric.

They posited that it would demand an integrated approach that could come in the form of social partnerships built with girls, households, communities and relevant governance and service delivery systems in such ways that significant shifts in the levels of knowledge, attitude and practices for protection of children and vulnerable adults, mostly poor marginalised girls, would be accomplished as a whole.