By Gabriel Ewepu
The Country Director, Global Rights Nigeria, Abiodun Baiyewu, in this interview on commemoration of 2019 International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, raised concerns about the inadequate and obsolete nature of laws protecting the girl-child in Nigeria, and advocated for removal of Value Added Tax, VAT, on sanitary pads, hence good water supply and sanitation in schools including other issues affecting the girl-child. Excerpts:
What is the International Day for the Girl-Child to you and your organization?
The commemoration of the International Day of the Girl-Child is a very important event because of the issues facing girl-children around the world. If we are to focus on Nigeria, issues on development we realize that women make half of our population. They start as girls in our communities, and women in the face of poverty in Nigeria, but you also think of their childhood as why poverty has a gendered face that most out of school children are actually girls in Nigeria and most victims of trafficking, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, domestic child-worker are mostly girl-children.
It is very important highlighting the issues affecting the girl-child and by the same time not only talk about the negatives but talk about the positives that we have made some progress in the past decade when it comes to issues on the girl-child. The incident female genital mutilation has drastically reduced even thought there are places these are happening. The uptake of girls going to school has improved in some communities even though we still struggle with other communities.
So is important to recognise that and it is also important to remind our government that they owe obligation to our 50 per cent to our communities and our people and make sure they become productive member of society whose rights are protected and whose contributions are appreciated.
From all indications, there are government agencies not really doing their job to protect the girl-child from some of the challenges you mentioned, what is your advice to them?
I think it is important for agencies to realise that their primary role is to ensure the welfare and security of all Nigerians that is the primary purpose of government and that is what the constitution says in Section 14 and when they fail to do this they lose their legitimacy as government agencies and basically to fulfill their constitutional mandate.
Taking you to the issue of the kidnapped schools girls in Chibok, recently the kidnapped girls in Kaduna and Leah Sharibu’s issue still hanging, what is message to President Muhammadu Buhari on this International Day of the Girl-Child?
Again I will remind the President of Section 14 (2b) of the constitution that says the primary purpose of government is the ensuring of the security and welfare of all Nigerians that the Chibok girls have been in captivity for more than 2000 days. The Chibok girls are just the icon, face and postal child of girls in captivity in our country. There are a lot of girls in the North East, middle belt when you come to think of what is going on in Kaduna State of kidnapping, and the spate of kidnapping that is gone on in Zamfara, Jigawa, Kastina State, and Jigawa more recently and across the country. I think it is such a shame that we have weakened our internal structure by emphasising on the wrong side of security. For example the Police’s job is for internal security and the military is to repel external aggression and insecurity. But we have inverted this and rendered the Police useless. Across communities we have do not have sufficient number of Police officers in our country.
If you look at the huge investment for example we are willing to make in security more than a hundred billion Naira for security but we are only willing to invest N47 billion for education. It doesn’t speak of a country that is serious or realizes that it has a serious problem in that. Most of the kidnappings and violence going on in Kaduna from the almanjiri children we have abandoned years ago we are now paying the consequences for it. We will pay the consequences in the North East because the number of unaccompanied children that are roaming the streets of the country and we are not catering for them. So the President has a lot to do and I advice that he gets to work immediately.
What about those who abuse the girl-child, are you comfortable with the laws?
Current framework of the laws are inadequate, one, is still hard to convict for sexual violence or for any crime against the child. I think one of the most ignored crimes we do not convict at all is failure to allow a child to develop. For example if you do not send your children to school no penalty for it. We have not of any one sentenced for refusing a child education in Nigeria which is a crime because you refusing that child and right of development.
Sexual violence is rife and as you heard even though our journalists have time and again published stories of sexual harassment in our secondary schools and universities till the BBC published an exposé. The one in Ekiti State where a lecturer impregnated a 16 year old girl in August and you would have expected uproar from our government. We had nothing happen in that regard. So it is the punishment and regime of investigating like I said the Police needs to be empowered, our laws needs to strengthened and reformed. We received the English law and they have reformed their law time and again Nigeria is failing to do the same. We need to face up to our realities and begin to reform our laws and institutions to these realities.
Do you advocate a special fund for the girl-child?
I do not advocate a special fund for the girl-child, all I want is we mainstream issues surrounding all children in Nigeria; male and female and particularly recognize the vulnerability of the girl-child in that dynamic. For example, you want to increase Value Added Tax, VAT, it is hard enough for a lot of girls to afford sanitary pads and he wants to increase VAT on sanitary pads. That in itself is a major disadvantage. So I am not advocating a special fund for them, I am saying sensible laws should help.
Are you saying they should subsidise the cost of sanitary pads?
I will say not just to government I will say to everyone the cost of sanitary pads should be highly subsidized and in the instances if they can be given for free. I do know that for a number of girls during their periods do not go to school. If they do not go to school for five days in a month which is a week and then the possibilities they will not do well in school, especially in courses that is built in themselves like Mathematics and sciences then the girl-children will continue not to do very well in school, and if they do not well in school the human resource potential will reduce and they will get married to men and will become liabilities rather than assets to their families. So we need to think deeper to be a girl in Nigeria and how Nigeria protects her and ensures her welfare.
So what is Global Rights doing to do to improve situation of the girl-child in Nigeria?
We are doing a lot and done a lot. One of our projects is ‘Rape is a Crime’. We continue to point out that one out of four girls will be a victim of sexual violence before they turn 18 in Nigeria. Except we all stand as a society and our government stands as well then these issues will continue to pester in our society. We will continue to point out how policies and laws protect and impact girl-children as well. Then beyond Global Rights, we all have responsibility as Nigerians and as a government to ensure that the girl-child is protected.