As a young girl growing up in the northeast of Nigeria, I was lucky to be able to attend primary and secondary school – and I relished my early education. I dreamed of one day becoming a journalist.
Many girls my age were not so lucky. In Nigeria, more than 10 million children are out of school, making up 45% of all out-of-school children in West Africa. Nigerian girls account for 60% of those 10 million, and, shockingly, 30% of girls aged between nine and 12 have never been to school. I’d often hear about parents denying their daughters an education – they’d complain it was of poor quality anyway, and they didn’t see the value in educating girls. Instead, they’d be married off early.
I had plans to apply for university, but then the horrific and cruel Boko Haram conflict swept over the country and my parents forced me into a marriage against my will. I was just 17, and my husband very quickly became abusive. Months later, insurgents violently attacked our home and we were forced to flee, becoming internally displaced people.
The biggest challenges facing women and girls in Nigeria right now include poverty, lack of empowerment, gender-based violence, lack of basic healthcare and gender discrimination. But when I look back on my own education as a schoolgirl, there are many things that need to change in my country to break the endemic cycle of discrimination women and girls are still experiencing here.
I remember the washrooms in the school I attended were not female friendly or equipped for menstrual hygiene. They had no proper lighting, drying lines or places for girls to change pads or clean up after menstruation. I was once flogged by the school sergeant after going to a hostel from school to change my sanitary pads; because of the stigma around menstruation I had to remain silent and he punished me for not being in school.
All of these experiences have fuelled my own passions for gender justice and given me the drive to now pursue my own education.
After leaving my violent husband and setting myself up in another region, I was able to access university education, obtaining a diploma in social work. I am now a third year Mass Communications student; the knowledge and empowerment I have gained through my studies has compelled me to fight for gender equality not just in Nigeria, but around the world. I am now a member of Plan International’s Girls Get Equal campaign and also founded an organisation called Zenith of the Girlchild and Women Initiative Support (ZEGCAWIS) that supports and advocates on behalf of women and girls in northeast Nigeria.
I have been privileged to participate in activist training and capacity building sessions with Plan International’s Girls Get Equal campaign that have helped me to identify girls who may be vulnerable to trafficking, and how to help empower women and girls against the threats of gender-based violence.
There’s no doubt that the situation for women and girls in North East Nigeria, where I live, work and study, has been worsened by COVID-19, because women and girls rarely have economic opportunities to make money for themselves.
In 2020, the scale of global school closures was unprecedented. UNESCO has estimated that globally, 11.2 million girls and young women from pre-primary to tertiary may drop out or not have access to school in 2021 due to the pandemic’s economic impact. In other estimates this is as high as 20 million girls and young women in low- and low-middle income countries. That number will be added to more than 130 million girls who are currently denied a right to an education.
This threatens to undo the years of progress and hard-won gains we’ve made for development and gender equality and it puts girls like me at a higher risk of forced marriage, early pregnancy and violence. We cannot afford to wait on getting girls back to school – we must act now to make sure that girls are not left behind as we build back from COVID-19.
COVID-19 has also impacted on my work as a gender equality activist because we can’t physically meet the women we want to support, but we are now more reliant on social media and radio to reach our clients and direct them to support services.
This is a long struggle towards gender equality in my region, but I am already heartened by some of the results I have seen. Even something as small as a posting I made on social media criticising local government agencies for not giving girls access to job opportunities resulted in me being contacted and asked for a recommendation that led to a girl I know getting a job. To me, that was a huge victory that really makes this work worthwhile.
What I have learnt along my journey is that education is everything. It is the key that unlocks doors. Unleashes potential. Unlocks dreams. And when a girl is educated, not only is she given choices for her future and opportunities that can change her life — she can change the world.
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