Giving Voice to the Girl-child

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Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that the recently marked 2020 International Day of the Girl themed “My voice, our equal future” was quite instructive in the face of the burgeoning challenges facing the girl-child, ranging from sexual violence to gender academic disparity, early marriage and even female genital mutilation

“Teenage girls are the new leaders of our time, creating global movements for change. They are ready for the challenge. On this International #DayOfTheGirl, let’s stand together with them and for them”. That was the apt and timely clarion made by the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres.

Every year on 11 October, the International Day of the Girl is marked and this year was not in anyway different, although it was marked without the usual fanfare because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Voice for the Girl-child

Since 2012, October 11 has been marked as the International Day of the Girl. The day aims to highlight and address the needs and challenges the girl-child faces, while promoting girls’ empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights. Also, UNICEF launches an annual campaign with girls to amplify their voices and stand up for their rights.

This year, the theme “My voice, our equal future”, examined the progress made since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, just as they called for all to seize the opportunity to reimagine a better world inspired by adolescent girls – energised and recognised, counted and invested in.

According to UNICEF, as adolescent girls worldwide assert their power as change-makers, the International Day of the Girl 2020 will focus on their demands to live free from gender-based violence, harmful practices, and HIV and AIDS , learn new skills towards the futures they choose  and lead as a generation of activists accelerating social change.

Also, according to the United Nations (UN), the theme was targeted at getting girls to assert their power as change-makers, as they inspire, break boundaries and take charge of their own future.

Beijing Declaration

In 1995, before the girls of today were even born, the fourth World Conference on Women made history for the women’s rights agenda with the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted, the most visionary blueprint for the empowerment of women and girls.

This was made possible by 30,000 women and men from nearly 200 countries, who arrived in Beijing, China for the Fourth World Conference on Women, determined to recognise the rights of women and girls as human rights. The conference culminated in the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action: the most comprehensive policy agenda for the empowerment of women.

According to the UN, it was to celebrate all of the achievements by, with and for girls since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the passage of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, that the theme was borne.

In the years following, women pressed this agenda forward, leading global movements on issues ranging from sexual and reproductive health rights to equal pay. More girls today are attending and completing school, fewer are getting married or becoming mothers while still children, and more are gaining the skills they need to excel in the future world of work.

Today, these movements have expanded. They are being organised by and for adolescent girls, and tackling issues like child marriage, education inequality, gender-based violence, climate change, self-esteem, and girls’ rights to enter places of worship or public spaces during menstruation. Girls are proving that if given a voice, they can change the world.

However, they noted that despite these achievements, that was not to say that many of the commitments made to girls were fulfilled. “Each year, 12 million girlsunder 18 are married; 130 million girlsworldwide are still out of school; And approximately 15 million adolescent girlsaged 15-19 have experience forced sex.

“The more than 1.1 billion girls in the world have had enough. This year on International Day of the Girl, we’re sharing the stories of girls around the world are calling to uphold the commitments made nearly 26 years ago, and create a better future for all”.

Their clarion call harped on the fact that with the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform and Declaration for action, on this International Day of the Girl-child, “let us renew our commitment to invest in girls’ health, education and safety and put an end to harmful practices that hold girls back from reaching their full potential”.

UN Declaration of Child Rights

Also tilted at protection the rights of the child, of which girls are included, The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, sometimes known as the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child was borne.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, is an international document promoting child rights, drafted by Eglantyne Jebband adopted by the League of Nations in 1924, and adopted in an extended form by the United Nations in 1959.

Thus, the UN adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1959 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1989 which harped on the fact that the child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.

Despite these existing documents to protect the rights of the child, including the female child, so many challenges have hampered its 100 per cent fulfillment.

Early Marriage

One of such challenges faced by the girl-child in Nigeria is early marriage. Nigeria has one of the highest child marriage prevalence rates in the world. In Nigeria, 39 per cent of girls are married off before age 18 and 16 per cent are married before they turn 15 years old.

However, according to the NDHS 2013, the number of Nigerian girls that are married before their 18th birthday is as high as 58.2 per cent. The prevalence of child marriage varies widely across the country, but figures are as high as 76 per cent in the North-west region, compared with 10 per cent in the South-east.

Ending child marriage requires strategies for girls’ empowerment, social and cultural norms change, legal reform, and policy action. The Child Rights Act of 2003 set the national legal minimum age of marriage at 18 years but it is yet to be ef- fectively implemented. There are 12 Northern states that have yet to pass the bill and agree on the minimum age of marriage. To be effective, state assemblies must take the necessary meas- ures to implement the Child Rights Act, including concrete steps to execute the minimum age of mar-riage. Along with the Child Rights Act, Ni- geria at national and sub-national levels needs to fast track the im-plementation of the Universal Basic Education act with special emphasis on girl education.

Also, according to UNICEF, Nigeria has the largest number of child brides in Africa with more than 23 million girls and women who were married as children, most of them from poor and rural communities. While data suggests a decline of nine per cent in the prevalence of child marriage since 2003, and a projected further decrease of six per cent by 2030, Nigeria’s rapid population growth means that the number of child brides will in fact increase by more than one million by 2030 and double by 2050.

Female Genital Mutilation

According to reports, just over one in four girls and women (27 per cent) aged 15-49 years have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), a rate that is still lower in Nigeria than in many countries.

However, due to its large population, Nigeria has the third highest absolute number of women and girls (19.9 million) who have undergone FGM/C worldwide. While prevalence continues to drop, with a projected further five-point decline by 2030, the population explosion is expected to result in the numbers of those affected to remain unchanged by 2030.

FGM otherwise known as circumcision is an invasive and painful surgical procedure that is often performed without anesthetic on the girl-child before puberty. It is an old traditional practice still being practiced in parts of Nigeria, making it one of the 27 countries in Africa where FGM is still being celebrated.

In this circumcision, the prepuce of the girl child is removed and their clitoris may be partially or completely removed and in some cultures, they go as far as removing the labia minora while the labia majora are sewn together, covering the urethra and vagina. At the same time, a small opening is retained for the passage of urine and menstrual fluid.

But despite a law criminalising FGM, zero enforcement has been its bane. As far back as 2002, there were talks by the Nigerian legislature to outlaw FGM and impose a two year jail term for offenders, although it allows for an option of a fine of 100 dollars or the imposition of both a fine and incarceration of six months.

Finally, when the bill which is called ‘Violence against Persons (Prohibition)’ was passed, it seeks to prohibit female circumcision or genital mutilation, forceful ejection from home and harmful widowhood practices.

However, despite a law clearly stating the government’s position against the practice, lack of enforcement has been the bane of it. The apathy of those that should enforce this ban has been declared one of the main issues why the practice is still popular. Also, the lack of awareness of the dangers posed by FGM is another problem.

So, with the law criminalising FGM, it definitely behooves the executive to enforce the laws passed by the legislature, even as community leaders should be engaged to help raise awareness on the dangers of the age-old cultural practice.

Educational Gender Disparity

In terms of equality in academic pursuit, the girl-child often comes in lacking. Although education is a basic human right and has been recognised as such since the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, there is still an existing gender disparity that faces the girl-child. In most communities, the male child is often bestowed on the privilege to education as against the girl-child.

Some factors might be responsible for this- cultural and socio-economic reasons- that prevent the girl-child from having adequate access to education.

Culturally, the girl-child is made to stay at home and learn to tend to her family instead of attending school. Another reason is that the Nigerian tradition attaches higher value to a man than a woman, whose place is believed to be the kitchen.

The socio-economic factors that have prevented the girl-child from education on the other hand boils down to poverty, early marriage, child labour, as well as some structural and institutional factors.

Child Labour

One of the traditional means of socialisation of children is through trading. However, the introduction of young girls into street trading increases the vulnerabilities of the girls to sexual harassment. Sexual abuse of young girls in Nigeria is linked to child labour.

Underage street hawking is a universal phenomenon that is not only common to Nigeria, as it is practiced in both industrialised and developing countries of the world. However, child labour, of which underaged street hawking features prominently, constitutes a serious problem.

From Kano to Anambra, Lagos, Rivers and other states of the federation, the social anomaly seems to be on the increase despite measures put on ground to ameliorate it.

Without a doubt, the consequences of underaged street hawking are far-reaching. It has a devastating effect on the education of children who practice it as it distorts government policies on education due to high rate of out of school children. Sometimes, the underage street hawkers are drawn into delinquent actions that may even dovetail to petty robbery and then graduate into robbery.

Also, majority of such underage girls who hawk are at the mercy of rapists and traffickers. Sometimes, these child hawkers are exposed to health challenges, accidents, stress, kidnapping, sexual abuse, and even death.

Sexual Violence

Although child sexual abuse in Nigeria is an offence under several sections of chapter 21 of the country’s criminal code, a survey by Positive Action for Treatment Access, revealed that over 31.4 percent of girls said that their first sexual encounter had been rape or forced sex of some kind.

Violence against children occurs in homes, families, schools, communities and other places where children should feel safe. Again, according to UNICEF, abuse in all its forms are a daily reality for many Nigerian children and only a fraction ever receive help.

They posited that six out of every 10 children experience some form of violence – one in four girls and 10 per cent of boys have been victims of sexual violence. Of the children who reported violence, fewer than five out of a 100 received any form of support.

The drivers of violence against children (VAC) are rooted in social norms, including around the use of violent discipline, violence against women and community beliefs about witchcraft, all of which increase children’s vulnerability.

Promoting Rights of the Girl-child in Nigeria

Across Nigeria, the day was celebrated by different states, groups and women bodies, all making affirmations and pledges towards the protection of the girl-child.

On her part, the Minister of Women Affairs, Mrs Pauline Tallen said the ministry has made tremendous progress in the promotion of the rights of the girl-child.

Speaking the launch of a campaign to support girl-child education and activities for the 2020 International Day of the Girl-Child, she said though there was progress, the discrimination and violence against girls and violation of their rights still persist.

She also lamented that girls were estimated to constitute the highest number of out-of-school children around the globe, thus stressing the need to promote girl-child education by all and sundry.

Harping that the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic had further jeopardised the gains recorded in the past in the programmes organised for the girl-child, she said cases of rape have escalated geometrically in the country.

She said “as we continue to widen the scope of the ministry’s partnership in delivering on the goal of the girl-child education, the occasion of the 2020 International Day of the Girl-Child is a time to support more girls in school.

The Chairperson, House of Representatives Committee on Women Affairs, Mrs Adewumi Onanuga, who spoke virtually, harped on the need for parents to support girl-child education, while the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Women Affairs, Hajia Hajo Sani, urged Nigerians to unite and tackle the challenges faced by the girl-child, especially rape.

CBAAC’s Commitment to Fight Violence against the Girl-child

To mark the 2020 International Day of the Girl-child, the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC) reaffirmed its commitment to end scourge of violence against adolescent girls and to promote their empowerment in all ramifications.

According to CBAAC Director General, Hon. Olubunmi Amao, the 2020 theme is focused on the demands of the girl child to live free from gender-based violence, harmful practices, and HIV and AIDS.

She noted that it is also geared to encourage them to learn new skills towards the future they choose, recognise their rights, highlight the challenges they face around the world and lead as a generation of activists accelerating social change.

She lamented that the girl child faces multiple challenges largely attributed to their age and gender.

“Some ethnic biases, cultural norms, religion, societal pressure, peer group, and denial to qualitative education have all in one way or the other heightened the existing disadvantages she faces in the society, thereby preventing her from realising her full potentials,” she added.

Amao said: “It is line with these factors that the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC) is joining the rest of the world to commemorate this year’s International Day of the Girl Child.

“The centre recognises the girl child (especially the black girl) as a potential gender that contributes handsomely to the economic and political growth of the future of their respective communities, hence the need to raise awareness on issues facing them such as lack to basiceducation, nutrition, forced child marriage, legal rights and medical rights.

“As a Pan-African Cultural Organisation whose mandate is to propagate the African culture in its totality, CBAAC identifies with girls all over the world and in Africa particularly, to address the challenges, biases, dangers and injustices they deal with.

“Girls have the right to a safe, educated and healthy life not only through their critical formative years but also as they mature into women hood. If properly equipped, they have the potential to change the world to a more equitable and prosperous one.

“As an African adage goes “if you educate a boy, you educate an individual, if you educate a girl you educate a community”.

“This succinctly explains the need to protect the right of the girl child and give them voices to express their needs and rights regardless of their sex.

“Girls should neither be limited nor relegated based on their gender. They should be given equal opportunity as their male counterpart in all aspect of endeavours.”

Amao further said “This is a clarion call to action for radical social and political change to tear down barriers of discrimination and prejudices that continue to cause impediment to the growth of the girl child.

“CBAAC enjoins government at all levels to join forces and reaffirm their commitment to end the scourge of violence against adolescent girls and to promote their empowerment in all ramifications.

“This year’s celebration is a key moment for advocating with and for girls and also presents an opportunity to reimagine a world shaped by the voices, visions and solutions to drive progress towards a gender equal world.“

Action Plan

According to UNICEF, its Platform for Action specifically calls on the global community to eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls; eliminate negative cultural attitudes and practices against girls, as well as promote and protect the rights of girls; and increase awareness of their needs and potential.

They also charged all to eliminate discrimination against girls in education, skills development and training; eliminate discrimination against girls in health and nutrition; and eliminate the economic exploitation of child labour and protect young girls at work.

They are also to eradicate violence against girls; promote girls’ awareness of and participation in social, economic and political life; and strengthen the role of the family in improving the status of girls.

Also, according to Save the Children.org, in its publication tagged ‘Changing the story of the Nigerian Girl-child’ what needs to be done is a tripartite process that should involve the government, civil society organisations (CSOs) and development partners.

For the government at national and sub-national levels, the organisation said they must take the lead, adding that the states that have not passed the Child Rights Act need to do so immediately and start implementation.

They further posited that since the Universal Basic Education Act 2004 mandates free and compulsory education for all children up to junior secondary level in Nigeria, government at national and sub-national level must ensure the effective implementation of this law as a key first step towards reducing early marriage.

They noted that government also needs to ensure that quality teaching and learning are taking place in all primary and junior secondary schools, as well as remove all barriers that make it difficult for young girls to go to school, including the costs associated with school attendance such as uniforms, extra school-imposed levies and transportation costs as schools must also be sensitive to cultural norms.

For the CSOs, they charged them to organise themselves by putting continuous pressure on government at national and sub-national level regarding the implementation of free and compulsory education, as well as monitor progress and tracking of resources to ensure accountability.

Also, community leaders needs to ensure that community structures continue to respond positively to all efforts encouraging girls to stay in school until at least the completion of junior secondary education.

To the development partners and donors, they charged them to put the girl-child development at the center of their development efforts, knowing that doing so will lead to rapid and lasting change.

They are also to collaborate with government at national and sub-national levels to take on these important issues, just as continual production of evidence and learning will also need to be supported by development partners.