Nigeria: Learning the hard way

Once, Nigeria's female population had no chance of an education, but that's slowly changing, says Laura Smith
Click to follow

Sakina, who thinks she is 12 years old but isn't sure, never went to primary school. She grew up in Tudun Kose, a remote village in the north-west of Nigeria, at a time when families didn't send their daughters to school and she can barely read or write her name. Sakina now spends her days fetching water and pounding millet to make grain for her family's meal, and says her parents are preparing for her to get married soon. She wants to go to secondary school but it's far away and her parents don't have the money to send her.

Asked about her hopes for the future, she says: "When I grow up I hope to be able to read the holy Koran." For her nine-year-old sister Hawwau, however, things are rather different. For the past two years, she has attended the village primary school and wears her school uniform with recognisable pride. "I feel very happy when I am at school," she says. "And when I grow up I want to be a doctor."

The striking change in aspiration between these two sisters has been brought about by a project run by ActionAid, which is trying to convince parents that educating girls is a worthwhile investment in the whole family's future. Called Enhancing Girls' Basic Education in Northern Nigeria (EGBENN) the project began operating in Tudun Kose three years ago and has seen the number of girls attending the primary school grow every year.

According to ActionAid, there are eight million children in Nigeria who do not go to school – a higher proportion than any other country in the world. Because families in dire poverty are more likely to educate their boys, 60 per cent of those not in school are girls. Girls are often encouraged to help earn money by "hawking" food on the streets or helping to harvest crops rather than go to a "western-style" school.

David Archer, head of education for ActionAid International, says the EGBENN project chose to focus on three of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim northern states because of their poor records on educating girls.

"There are a lot of different reasons why parents don't send their girls to school," he explains. "Some are to do with traditional attitudes, which hold that investing in the education of girls is not worthwhile because they won't be able to bring the economic return to the household that boys will, and also because they're likely to get married and leave the family home.

"There are also issues around early pregnancy, fears of violence towards girls on the way to and at school, inappropriate teaching and an absence of basic facilities like toilets for girls. It's a gamble sending a child to school when you are poor and need support in the household, and its often girls who lose out."

The ActionAid project works by addressing this complex range of factors – most importantly, by trying to change the attitudes of parents and community and religious leaders, who often fear that education will turn girls away from their faith and their responsibilities. One of the methods has been to train people within communities to run so-called "reflect" workshops, a style of debating that helps them identify the problems they face and work out how to demand what they need – such as lobbying local government for new schools, for example.

Archer says an important aspect of this approach is to empower women and improve their literacy. "This has enabled them to stand up and say, 'We believe in the education of our daughters'," he says. "That's been very important because without their support it is difficult for such changes to take place."

In some areas, Islamic schools have agreed to combine their approach with a more general, "western" education, and in others community and religious leaders have been encouraged to send their daughters to school in the hope that other parents will follow their lead. Other initiatives include the training of more female teachers and awareness-raising campaigns in the local media.

The approach has been successful. The 12 months after it began saw a 44 per cent increase in girls' enrolment in primary school and its success was recently recognised with a £4m grant from Comic Relief and the Tubney Charitable Trust which will allow ActionAid, along with their partner in Northern Nigeria, Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP), to expand this work across more of the country. The work will also be expanded into Northern Tanzania by ActionAid and their Tanzanian partner, Maarifa ni Ufunguo.

Despite the project's positive results, there remain ingrained problems, and the outcome of the new project, Transforming Education for Girls, will be carefully monitored to measure its effectiveness. Whatever the outcome, child education remains one of the major challenges for pulling countries, and the individuals within them, out of poverty. ActionAid says 80 million children in the world still do not have the chance to go to school, even though it would cost just £5bn per year until 2015 to get every child into primary school.

Such action would tackle other problems too: the charity says education for every child could prevent seven million cases of HIV and Aids in the next decade and reduce the likelihood of children dying before the age of five. As one Nigerian education secretary recently put it: "If you can educate a woman, you are educating a whole world."

In 2000, the UK was among nearly 190 countries to sign up to the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. Among them is a promise that every child should complete a quality primary education by 2015. But campaigners say progress on meeting this goal is slow.

Gordon Brown's promise of £8.5bn for global education from 2006 to 2015 has been slow to materialise. Last year, only £400m was donated, and this year, £450m. The Global Campaign for Education, which is an international coalition of NGOs campaigning for more donor aid, says donations must be stepped up if the Millennium Goals are to be met.

"The donors are very good at promising and doing events on the issue," says Owain James, global coordinator of the GCE. "But we haven't seen the money."

Until such funds are forthcoming, it is likely that many more girls will continue to miss out on a vital education. Like Sakina, 12-year-old Mansur, who lives in Sokoto, would love to get an education. Instead she spends her days working in the market transporting food, sand and other materials in her wheelbarrow.

"I would love to learn to read and write," Mansur says. "If I had an education I think I would be able to help other people and children."