Last week I travelled to Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Northeastern Borno State for 1 GAME Campaign, the organization I launched to improve access to school for thousands of girls who miss out on education in one of the country’s most populous and educationally underdeveloped states.
According to UNICEF, 40% of Nigerian children aged 6-11 do not attend any primary school. Traditionally, access to education in the northern states has been much lower, with the gender gap even wider and the proportion of girls to boys in school ranging from one girl to two to three boys in some states. Girls in the region face numerous barriers to education, including poverty and the expectation that girls stay at home helping with household chores. Moreover, stringent interpretations of religion especially by Boko Haram, prevent many girls from obtaining an education.
1 GAME Campaign is collaborating with the Borno State Universal Basic Education Board to encourage reluctant parents to send their daughters to safe schools working through traditional leaders, youth leaders and the local media as facilitators.
Meet Aisha and Shukriya
Aisha 16, and Shukriya 17, are two bright young women I met at a slum in Maiduguri. They were married in the past year and already have children.
Despite the added challenges of motherhood, marriage and increased isolation from their peers, these young women have not given up their education and are determined to remain in school.
As they welcome me to their home, they remind themselves of the luck they have, not to be among the 234 girls abducted by Boko Haram insurgents from their school in Chibok, last April.
Aisha and Shukriya are among thousands of students in Borno State that have had their education disrupted either directly or indirectly by Boko Haram. Their school has been closed by the Borno State Government to prevent attacks from insurgents.
According to research by Amnesty International, at least 70 teachers and over 100 schoolchildren have been killed or wounded since violence intensified in northeastern Nigeria in 2012. During this time, at least 50 schools have either been burned or seriously damaged, and more than 60 others have been forced to close. Since 2012, over 1,000 teachers have been forced to flee from areas in the North under threat of attack. Under these conditions, thousands of children have been forced out of schools across communities in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States.
Before the insurgency, various challenges have made education for girls in northern Nigeria a herculean task. Child marriage which gained widespread condemnation on social media last year is one of such.
Highest rate of child marriage
A special report by several African advocacy organizations reveals that eight states in Northern Nigeria - Kebbi, Sokoto, Bauchi, Jigawa, Yobe, Zamfara, Katsina, and Gombe have the highest female illiteracy rates and the lowest number of girls in school. Maybe not surprisingly, they also have the highest rate of adolescent girl marriages and the highest record of child bearing under the age of 15 placing them in the highest risk category for maternal death and injury.
Spending time with Aisha and Shukriya was an incredibly inspiring experience. I had a great time getting to know the girls outside the formal school environment, hanging out in the compound where they relaxed into easy banter and giggling, just like teenage girls all over the world. I was deeply impressed by the commitment of these young girls to pursue their dream of completing secondary school in the face of tremendous obstacles.
Life or education?
In the aftermath of the Chibok abductions, Nigerian children, especially those in the Northeast, are now being force to either “stay at home and live, or go to school and be killed”, as many parents put it.
Boko Haram militants, who fight against western education, now count on any parent’s choice to rather have a living, breathing and uneducated child than a kidnapped or dead one.
Under the imposed state of emergency, young people have become terrified of the pervading insecurity. Many, who follow the situation in the troubled region, now fear that more girls may join the country’s estimated 10.5 million children who are out of school, six million of whom are girls.
Across northeastern Nigeria, girls such as Aisha and Shukriya just want to be able to attend school and complete their secondary education without the threats of insurgent attacks. Like many girls in the region, they both believe that there will be a time when they can go to school without the threat of terrorist attacks looming above their heads.
They are also certain about is that if and when the insurgency is over, the memories of dormitories being burnt beyond recognition, innocent students killed before their friends, and poor schoolgirls kidnapped to unknown destinations will remain for a long time.
Philip Obaji Jr. is the founder and general coordinator for the 1 GAME Campaign, which promotes basic primary education for vulnerable kids in Nigeria.