Reintegrating the Girl-child into School System

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Funmi Ogundare writes that girls who are out-of-school as a result of one form of attack or the other, abuse and poverty, need to be supported, safe and secured to get them re-integrated into the school system

Friday November 16, 2018 will remain indelible in the life of Miss Maria Akinlolu (not real name), 13, a junior secondary three student of Emmanuel Academy, Akute, Ogun State. Though from a poor background, she went to school that morning with high hopes just like any of her mates, oblivious of what will befall her.

After school hours, with the excitement of getting home into the warm embrace of her mother, a vegetable seller, being the first child of the family, she was accosted by a group of four boys who threw a powdery substance in her face, dragged her into an uncompleted building where she was gang-raped; deflowered by those she felt could protect her. As a result of the incident, she is scared of going back to school for studies because of the shame and stigma she might face.

She shared her story with THISDAY: “When I was coming back from school on Friday, I was accosted by a certain Sheriff who is my boss’s fiancé whom I work for as a trainee auxiliary nurse at Baale Akinwusi Street, in Ajuwon. I noticed he was coming behind me and he suddenly held my hand and poured a powdery substance in my face. That was the last thing I remembered.

“By the time I regained consciousness, I saw myself in an uncompleted building with blood all over body. I saw four boys standing there beside me and I asked them what I was doing there, they told me not to worry and threatened that if I alert anybody, I would be killed. He gave me another powder to rub my face at that point and mentioned his name as Sheriff Agunbiade. Though I was very weak, I discovered that they had removed my uniform and shoes and I was left with the singlet I wore under my uniform in the morning. I managed to escape from the uncompleted building.

“I am scared of going back to school now because of the shame I might face. My classmates and teachers may think I am a bad girl and may want to stigmatise me.”

Maria’s mother, Mrs. Funke Akinlolu in an emotion- laden voice expressed dismay over the shoddy manner the police handled the case when it was reported at Ajuwon Police Station and wants her daughter to go to the village and live with her grandmother, rather than going back to school because of shame.

She said her daughter had complained of severe body pains after the traumatic ordeal while describing her as a very good and trustworthy girl. She said the school authority had come to sympathise with the family and wants justice done.

Maria is not alone as other girls who find themselves in similar situations are forced to drop out of school due to rape, poverty, early marriage, ethnicity, residence and disability, as well as lack of security and safety measures in schools particularly in places where education has been under severe threat.

For these group of girls, who have been victims of circumstances, apart from a good delivery of quality education and counselling, especially at the basic level to integrate them back into the school system, they need to be educated on their safety and protected in the face of impending attacks.

According to reports, there is no existing model for schools to adopt in relation to safety and security. Communities are weak and therefore unable to respond appropriately to challenges that threaten the education and future of their children, particularly the girl-child.

The founder of a non-governmental organisation, Centre for Children’s Health, Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE Hope), Mrs. Betty Abah, who took interest in Maria’s case, said her organisation works with marginalised children and young people in excluded and forgotten communities in Nigeria, adding that its biggest programme is on girls’ empowerment through skills acquisition, mentorship and leadership trainings.

She said she is concerned about anything that tampers with the safety of girls and contributes to her quota towards helping them.

“We were able to trace the family of the mastermind of the rape case and went to the police station. By the time we got there, Maria could identify the boys; they live in her neighbourhood in Ajuwon, Ogun State. My staff got on the case and we took her to Mirabel Centre for intervention on HIV/AIDS test, contraceptive and hepatitis and for her to also get her medications because she could get pregnant through the terrible encounter.

“As we were on the case, I kept communicating with the parents on the phone. We got to know that two of the boys arrested by the police were freed by the Divisional Police Officer (DPO). He didn’t even listen to parents of the victim, but preferred to dismiss the boys.

“So we got the story out in the social media and got Punch Newspaper into it. When Punch did the report, the Ogun State commissioner summoned the DPO. When the story got into the media, they knew that it will not be swept under the carpet. We want to ensure that justice is done.”

Abah said the biggest threat to girl-child education is poverty and early marriage, adding that when a girl is not educated and protected, she is vulnerable to sexual violence and lacks the confidence that comes with getting education and empowered.

She said parents that are not enlightened think that the best they can do for their girls is to give them up in marriage.

“It is poverty that makes a teenager engage in transactional sex to buy sanitary pad, feed and at the end of the day, many of them get pregnant in the process. It is poverty that degrades women and girls in community where I work. It cuts every possibility of a future.

“A girl that is not educated and protected is an endangered specie, she is cut-off from getting life- enhancing opportunities,” she said, adding that the girl-child must have access to quality education in good schools with adequate facilities.

In Nigeria, it is common to see more boys going to school than the girls, as some stakeholders confirmed to THISDAY that even the girls prefer to stay at home to assist with family enterprise and also raise their siblings.

According to statistics obtained from the Lagos State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), there are a total of 239,914 female and 242,571 male pupils in 1,012 public primary schools across the state, meaning that more boys at the basic level are in school in the state compared to their female counterparts.

However, there is still a long way to go to meet the needs of all girls at the basic education level. Though more girls are enrolled in primary schools today than ever before, yet the majority of children still out of school are girls.

In a report carried out by UNICEF, Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school girls and children with about 13.5 million children out-of-school, highest in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The net enrolment rate for girls at primary level is five per cent lower than for boys, gross enrolment at the junior secondary school level also follows this trend. Both figures hover around 50 per cent. This falls far short of the target of Education for All (EFA) and the MDGs.

The situation is more disastrous in the northern part of Nigeria, as the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) also estimates that more than 80 per cent of the 13.5 million children are out of school, with a larger percentage being girls.

Nonetheless, the importance of educating and protecting the girl-child the world over, cannot be overemphasised as it is good for development; encourages economic growth; contributes to stable and secure communities; reduces maternal and child mortality; raises schooling levels for the next generation; and meets human rights standards.

Some public school teachers and government officials who spoke to THISDAY, confirmed that though there is gender disparity in their respective schools and states due to deep-rooted forms of inequality based on, ethnicity, residence and disability, as well as armed conflict on education, the government is making effort through some programmes to ensure that girls are safe to go to school.

A teacher at New Era Girls Secondary School, Surulere, Mrs. Kafayat Lawal attributed the disparity in gender to ignorance of the parents who do not believe in educating their girl-child, saying that her school is planning to start a campaign within the Surulere community to inform people on the importance of educating the girl-child.

She added that the old girls’ association is also organising a symposium and providing teaching and learning facilities to ensure that the girl-child is in school, adding that learning is not done in abstract.

“How are we going to ensure that the girls don’t derail? It does not take anything to get education especially in public schools, we organise seminars to let girls know that they must be educated. We are taking the lead and I believe that after doing this, we will make it a regular programme so that more people can be aware. The old girls are doing marvellously; they are providing more than enough in the area of ICT so that the girl-child does not learn in abstract.”

A teacher at Race Course Model Primary School, Nasarawa State, Mallam Abdulmumim Umaru said the gender parity in his school is 70:30 per cent in favour of the boys, adding that the girls don’t come to school because their mothers want them to face the family business.

“Quality education is what will make an individual be on his own and at the same time contribute to the development of the country. My pupils are getting quality education, we have a policy that stipulates that education must be made compulsory for both male and female and we are already enlightening the parents to send their girl-child to school.”

The Deputy Director, Kano SUBEB, Mr. Ibrahim Sale highlighted the factors bedevilling girl-child education in the state to include culture, religion and poverty, saying that the government is in talk with women associations on the importance of girls’ education and there is a programme on girls’ scholarship of N45,000 per session that covers books, transport and feeding.

“We have so many programmes such as sensitisation of community so that they can allow their children to come to school.”

The Chairperson, Edo SUBEB, Dr. Joan Oviawe said the state has made good strides in gender parity when it comes to education.

“In our public schools, the difference is not more than five per cent in terms of boys’ and girls’ enrolment. Recently, there was a national report that came out where Edo State has the fewest out of school children in the country. So what that means is that a lot of our girl-children are in school.

“We also have the Child Rights Law domesticated at the state level; through sensitisation, our social mobilisation officers go in and around the communities to educate parents on the value of educating the girl-child and what that translates to parents is in terms of their social wellbeing and economic advancement, we see that more parents are bringing their girls to school.”

The Chairman, Lagos SUBEB, Dr. Ganiyu Sopeyin said the board has made education free and compulsory for boys and girls.

“It is the right of every child of school age to be in school. This is backed by legislation by government,” he said, adding that state-of-the art facilities are provided along with learning materials, free books and ensuring their security.

“The Lagos State Government, under the aegis of the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT), has been engaging primary and secondary school students on child rights and child abuse, as well as all forms of sexual and domestic violence. The initiative is also geared towards empowering them with their roles and responsibilities in handling and preventing such issues.

“The team held an interactive workshop for primary school children tagged: ‘Safeguarding the Rights of a Child’, also known as STRAC, to appropriately sensitise them in age appropriate language on their rights and responsibilities, how to avoid being a victim of sexual abuse, self-defence tips, and how to preserve evidence when physically or sexually assaulted.

“There is also the Smart Teens Advocacy initiative, targeted at secondary school students, deployed to fight against the growing trend of rape in secondary schools. The rape prevention workshop is led by trained peer educators to curb incidents of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual molestation among teenagers.”