Hope Rises for the Girl-child in Northern Nigeria

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By dropping her dream of specialising in Obstetrics and Gynaecology for Public Health to advance girl-child education and maternal health in Northern Nigeria with her hard-earned money, Eromosele Abiodun reports that Dr. Halima Nuhu Sanda, a young medical professional, has brought succor and hope

Issues of gender equality in education have been the subject of much debate during the past decades and have become a prominent topic of debate in all countries. In Nigeria, there are large disparities between the education that boys and girls receive.

Many girls do not have access to adequate education past a certain age. It is estimated that female adult literacy rate (ages 15 and above) for Nigeria is 59.4 per cent compared to male adult literacy rate of 74.4 per cent. It is differences in education that have led to this gap in literacy. The gender gap in literacy rates at the rural level between boys and girls is 18.3 percent in favour of the boys overall. In the age group six–nine years (primary school ages) it is 3.9 per cent in favour of boys.

This indicates that there is a gender dimension to educational attainment and development in Nigeria. According to the Examination Council of Nigeria there are still other problems, such as high drop-out rates of females students, poor performance, reluctance on the part of females students to enroll in science-based courses and poor classroom participation.

Across various geo-political delineations in Nigeria, a greater percentage of school-age girls are needlessly out-of-school, compared with the ratio applicable to boys of same age grouping.

Gender Disparity

Gender disparity is also visible in the education of children with disabilities, a study in the 1990s revealed that only 37 per cent of disabled females are literate compared to 57 per cent for males. A reason for this situation is the cultural notion that the male will carry the family name while the female will marry. Also, the option of street begging by young disabled girls in order to earn income can inhibit their attendance of classes.

Statistically, the bulk of the world illiterates are women, and this is also applicable to northern Nigeria, where 65 per cent of the children in school are boys, while majority of the girls are out of school. However, efforts are being made by concerned elites who had the opportunity of western education and knows the immense benefit of girl-child education.

To reverse this trend, a medical professional and Founder/CEO of Romeo and Zainab BoudibFoundation (ROMZAIB), Dr Halima Nuhu Sanda, from Kano State has embarked on a mission. It is not only in girl-child education that Sanda is making giant strides. She has also spent her personal resource on maternal health in her home state.

Northern Nigeria has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with approximately 1,012 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Pregnant women in northern Nigeria also have limited take-up of health services. Sanda sees this as an opportunity for the elite in northern Nigeria to give back. Sanda’s zest for philanthropy started as a youth in college.

“I started this philantrophy as far back as 2007 in school with a friend by rising funds to donate foods and clothes to orphanage homes. But this was officially registered as an NGO in 2015. We do have a few things we help with. We do not go with our help, we ask the communities what they need the most, assess and help them the best we can, “she told THISDAY.

Selfless Service
Sanda has since 2015 done many charitable work in northern Nigeria despite the risk of being kidnaped by jihadist who sees girl-child education as sin.

“We have four buckets; Health (Maternal and newborn health), Education, Water Sanitation and Hygiene and IDPs. We have donated essential drugs in some few hospitals, donated medical equipment in some few hospitals and mattresses in some few maternity wards. Recently, we supported Tofa Community in Kano to expand their community clinic to provide maternal health services and we have been paying the volunteer workers salary for the past five years.

“Education is an area we are very concerned about; our scholarship is only available to girls and this is our second year of awarding scholarships. This year, we paid examination fees for six girls from two schools in Kano. We currently have two categories, one for Community Midwifery students and the other for Nursing and Midwifery students.

“We will also be launching three more scholarship funds this year for Medicine, Pharmacy and Engineering. Our aim is help the girl-child to be able to play a role in shaping her own destiny, to give her a chance at becoming whatever it is she wants to become by eliminating barriers that prevent them from achieving their dreams, “she said.

ROMZAIB, Sanda said, has donated exercise books, chairs to public schools where the students do not have any or the ones available have become obsolete.

“The next project we have plans to commence is construction of boreholes and schools in hard-to-reach communities. But we try as much as possible to compliment their effort where they can chip in to promote community ownership and sustainability. We also produced facemasks and will be distributing the last 1000 to some schools in Kano within the next two weeks.

“We have plans to train some girls on the production of reusable sanitary towel. This was supposed to have commenced last year but had to be postponed because of COVID-19. We have commenced some talk with an American NGO to see if we can get international funds to set up an e-learning platform for IDP camps in BornoState,” she added.

Raising Funds

Sanda described spending her own resource with help from her mother and other family members as, “out of this world”.

“The experience is out of this world. Financially it can be quite demanding, but so fulfilling emotionally. My mother, younger sister and two younger brothers have been very helpful. They have been my largest donors. This goes way back in 2005 when I came to Nigeria for my summer medical practice in Muhammad Abdullahi Wase Specialist Hospital. A hospital I still volunteer my me time. The first department I was posted to was Internal Medicine and Dr. Imam Wada Bello was my supervisor. I resumed on my first day with so much enthusiasm but by the time I got out I was as depressed as anyone can be.

“I saw first-hand people dying from treatable diseases and knowing that financial interventions reaching some of the women and babies on time would have averted most of these deaths sickened me. I couldn’t help because I didn’t have a dime on me that day and I was basically as penniless as they were. But there was a difference still for I could have a dime if I asked for it.

“At that time I had about N10,000 or so in my bank account and I went to the bank and had them give me in N5000 in N20 notes. That was 15 years ago and I could hardly believe it. Funny enough my mother was clearing stuff about a month ago and N260 in N20 notes were found in my jotter and I asked my mother if she could remember how I forced her to contribute to my cause and we laughed over it.

“That day I decided I was going do something no matter how small it is. This among other things made me drop my dream of specialising in Obstetrics & Gynaecology and was drawn to Public Health because of its unbound solutions to health issues. I went in search of skills required to help me contribute positively towards my community and country at large.

“So I left for my masters in Public Health and was lucky to be introduced to Dr Ahmad AbdulWahab by my mother during one of my research trip to Nigeria. He opened for me the gate of possibilities. He did not see my age and lack of experience as a barrier but rather a pathway to something new, innovative and different. And I did not disappoint him in his own words. So you can say he gave me the power to come up with my own ideas on how to do things, “she revealed.

Gripping Statistics

Nigeria, Sanda stated, accounts for almost 20 per cent of all global maternal death every single day, adding that Nigeria loses about 2,300 under-five year olds and 145 women of childbearing age, making the country the second highest contributor in the world. “So being intimately familiar with the issues on ground, I was certain that if the health and educational sector was better funded, equipped and managed with clear and effective policies, this kind of number could be avoided.

“Working with rural communities on community Based Service Delivery (a door-to-door health care service intervention that was piloted by a PRRINN-MNCH a DFID funded project) in Zamfara State further exposed me to the continuous challenges that persisted in health care institutions in the country, “she said.

She added that lack of adequate healthcare resources places a burden on the already stretched infrastructure, which significantly impacts the health and quality of life the people especially of members of the rural communities.

“The findings of my job experience made me welcome the challenge of serving large rural communities, and participating in such a dynamic and challenging field further increased my passion for public health and prompted me to choose Public Health as a career path because it brings me closer to people than I can ever dream of. Through my philanthropic activities in communities, I have seen tangible success from these little humble efforts.

“So it echoes in my mind that change can come, and it need not be with an astronomical “price tag”. So I am always in search of the proper concepts and tools needed to work with the government to bring sustainable solutions to problems besieging the Northern Nigeria. I have always wondered what if every woman was guaranteed a safe delivery? What if every community has access to healthcare services?

“What if every girl-child has access to quality education? What if every girl-child was allowed to play a role in shaping her own future. But not for once have I ever wondered who would help these girls achieve their dreams, or make that change, I always knew I was that someone or at least part of the team, “she stated.

Driving Girl-child Education

On how the federal government and traditional institutions can join the crusade, she said, “It’s no secret that only about 30 per cent of girls in Northern western and Northeastern Nigeria attend schools as compared to over 70 per cent of their counterparts in Southern Nigeria- that’s twice the number. Additionally, girls in the North have a nine per cent chance of being enrolled in a Secondary school while in the south the number is about 79 per cent. And let’s not forget that 87 per cent of poor people in Nigeria live in the North. That is not my dream for the North, my dream for this great region doesn’t look like this.”

She said a few of the Northern State governments are beginning to realise the north has been in a slumber for a longtime, “and if we do not get out of it, then we are in big trouble. In the past few years, some of the governors I have read have implemented compulsory free education and other educational policies and increased the budget for education. But it goes way beyond having polices and increasing the budget. We need to remember that we have barriers that are contributory factors to these issues because despite the effort to make education free, we still have girls hawking and getting married at tender ages when they are not even physical ready for consummation because the fathers need to reduce the burden on themselves and the mothers need some income and only the single girls can go and hawk.

“So until we deal with these barriers that prevent these girls to access the free education, our progress will be very slow. Truth is some people think of early marriages in the North as a culturally constructed problem, well maybe some decades ago, but right now, I can tell you that early marriage is a socio-economically constructed problem.

“It’s not only about the girls missing or not going to school, it’s about the fact that these girls also get sexually exploited while out on the street hawking and many of them contract STIs, unwanted pregnancy which drives them to seeking abortion from quack doctors putting their lives in danger and many actually losing their lives in the process. We see these cases in the health facilities every day.

“Perhaps the state can consider including some incentives for the parents because let’s face it for many of these families, these girls hawking is their only source of income. So policies of women empowerment could go a long way in making these families embrace such policies and prevent them from sending their daughters to hawk instead of to classrooms.”

Government, she added, could consider enacting a law that criminalises girls hawking or maybe prosecute parents that send their girls to hawk, putting their lives in danger.

She added, “I am not sure, but I think Kaduna State has something like that and in terms of education, it’s is one state that truly making an effort.

Menstrual Hygiene

On menstrual hygiene she said: “We also need to look at menstrual hygiene and management as it is another neglected barrier to girl-child education. A UNESCO report estimated that one in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their menstrual cycle. By some estimates, this equals to as much as 20 per cent of a school year.

“For girls who are menstruating, these problems compound the difficulties posed by the inability to afford sanitary towels as well as cultural taboos around menstruation. So as a result, many girls miss on average four days of school every month as they have little choice but to stay at home. Which if you make the math, that is about 48 days in a year, of course they will fall behind in class.

“About 44 per cent of these girls are reported to drop out of school before completing their secondary education. One reason for this interruption could be inadequate provision for MHM that does not allow all girls to attend school with dignity and comfort during their menstrual period. So providing adequate MHM will greatly enhance their school life and help them stay in school.”

Role of Traditional Rulers

Speaking on the role of traditional leaders, Sanda said, “ I think we need to put in religious leaders as well. We can separate traditional and religious leaders especially in the north because they are the gatekeepers of the communities whatever they promote, sell and whatever they condemn is dead on arrival.

“These are people that are highly regarded and respected and so their role for me would be to support the government to enforce laws and polices work with CBOs to further sensitise their communities clarifying myths and misconceptions regarding girl-child education and so on.

“I can testify that many of them are making tremendous contribution to uplifting their people in many ways and are always willing to support the government and NGOs and CBOs when it comes to implementation of interventions. I have had the privilege of meeting many of them and I am sure there are many more out there that I haven’t been privileged to meet.

Import of Role Models

Admitting the importance of role models Sanda said “As a community, we also need to have role models who can speak to these girls to encourage them. I know how important a role model can be and the difference it can make in a life. I had my mother as one as she made me believe that everything was within my reach and I can be whatever `I want to become and my father, he was my greatest cheerleader. So I would love to be one for many other girls.”