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October 27, 2018

How unhealthy narratives hurt the Nigerian girl child

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A file photo of girls in school.

By Morenike Taire

October 11- the world came together yet again to draw attention to the plight of the girl child once again, and all over the world.

While women are shattering glass ceilings everywhere and others are exercising their freedoms of choice, they are not representing the majority of girls across the world who will never have such opportunities in their lifetimes.

The reasons are far fetched and rarely zero on to our hypocrisy and our lack of will to change the status quo. When global conversations are started about the plight of the girl child in Nigeria, it is the Leah Shuaibus- the famous ones- that get all the attention.

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An unimaginable number of millions of dollars have been spent of workshops deliberating on the fate of the girl child. While the deliberators sip coffee in the air conditioned seminar rooms, another 12 year old is given away in marriage with no one to fight for her.

She is being spoken of because she fits into a certain narrative- of the Northern Moslem child of illiterate parents who has not, in her entire life, seen no woman who is not covered up and silent; subservient and submissive.

She knows no other way to be: no one has told her. No one has shown her. She is groomed, from the day she is born, for the propagation of the species for the advancement of male agendas. She exists for no other function than to procreate and give pleasure while getting none herself. This narrative is too narrow, too shallow and therefore part of the problem. In a twist of irony, it is so exclusive, it fails to include the army of hurting and needy girls across the country in various strata of society and various circumstances.

Three weeks ago, CNN once more outraged the world by exposing a trafficking route around The Bois de Vincennes, a sprawling park on the outskirts of eastern Paris. As expected, Nigerian women constituted a healthy part of the commercial sex work community there, trafficked as girls at a time when they ought to have been getting an education and acquiring lifelong skills.

Back home, they are labeled “greedy” and “stupid” as it was revealed they had paid hundreds of thousands- sometimes up to a million naira to their traffickers, whom we prefer to regard more as businessmen than as the villains that they are.

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Since the early to late 90s, trafficking of young women, mostly from the Nigerian state of Edo had turned from an occurrence to a phenomenon, ultimately culminating in the mass exodus of illegal Nigerian migrants from north Africa and the Middle East in the last two years, many of them girls whose lives had been terminated by sex slavery.

They return not to a warm or welcoming embrace of their compatriots, but to the cold, stony stares of judgement. A few have ‘made good’, building houses with hard money, while others have ‘diversified’ into real business. The majority return to the same hopelessness from which they had fled.

In 2016, 17 year old Aisha Chuwas, previously known as Ese Oruru finally found her voice in defense of herself and her lover, an 18 year old called Yunusa who had been accused of abducting her and forcing her into sexual slavery.

The nation had been outraged at the news of the abduction, particularly against the background of the Chibok girls saga, which had at the time remained a mystery. The narrative had then been of a jihadist, extreme Moslem North trying to force a Christian girl into Islam. The reality is far more bizzare.

In a report published by Africa Health, Human and Social Development Information Service (Afri-Dev. Info), in partnership with African Coalition on Maternal Newborn and Child Health; and Pan African Campaign Against Forced Marriage of  Under Age Children, Bayelsa state came 13th for number of adolescent girls in marriage, scoring worse than Adamawa, Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa states. Also, in the indicator of females aged 20 to 24 years who gave birth before age of 18 years, Bayelsa again placed 13th. In that category, Adamawa, Taraba, and Niger states scored better than Delta, Rivers, and, Anambra states, the report shows.

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The scorecards underline the links between poor educational attainment for girls, forced marriage of underage children, and under age child bearing. In this regard, many Nigerian states have done well. States such as Lagos and Oyo have consistently provided more than enough opportunities for girls to remain in school long after adolescence. Other states have tried by paying for their students to write WAEC, UME and other landmark exams to ensure they at least have one qualification with which to be armed through life.

Unfortunately, even in states such as Lagos, divides are sharp between the rich and the poor are sharp. A recent survey finds that in neighbourhoods such as Ijora, the average twenty year old has already started engaging in childbirth. Lagos has no known post secondary scholarship scheme, definitely none specifically for girls. The state’s skills acquisition scheme is more noise than substance.

To make matters worse, advanced states such as Lagos which provide the most opportunities also have the highest numbers of female street traders and sexually molested girls in the country. While Lagos state boasts on its official website of being the State with the highest number of public schools, students and teachers with the highest number of candidates for public examinations in Nigeria since 1967, independent studies suggest cultural issues ensure many stay out of school for domestic reasons. UNICEF says 60% are girls.

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Perhaps the most insidious violation against the girl child in Nigeria is our reluctance to address the age of marriage as well as the age of paid labour. A majority of middle to high income families across the country engage underage girls in domestic labour as ‘house helps’. Many of these girls are never paid directly and suffer various forms of humiliation and abuse.

If you are taking part in the conversations around the plight of the girl child, do not look to the 12 year old bride in Zamfara or the teenager from Edo pushed by circumstances to sell her body in Europe. Look, rather, at the young house-help in your own backyard.