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A total disregard for girls

by Damilola Oyedele


Women and girls suffer in northern Nigeria, not only because of Boko Haram: Protesting in Abuja.

Women and girls suffer in northern Nigeria, not only because of Boko Haram: Protesting in Abuja.

Boko Haram attacks are terrorising Nigerians. Bombs and the abduction of 276 schoolgirls have made headlines internationally. But even without fundamentalist violence, matters are desperate for many people in Nigeria’s North. Women and girls suffer most. By Damilola Oyedele

The attack by an armed group on girls of the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State, does not come as a complete surprise, nor has it been the first one. In this poorest region of the country, threats against women are not uncommon, and school attendance of female children is low. Although most of the abducted girls are Christians, who are in a minority in northern Nigeria, there are now fears that the increasing insecurity will effectively keep girls from all faiths from going to school.

Nigeria – despite being an economic power – currently has the world’s highest number of out-of-school children. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation reckons there are 10.5 million of them in its Education for All Global Monitoring Report of 2013. More than half of them are girls.

In most parts of northern Nigeria, cultural and religious customs are used by the patriarchal society to keep girls out of school and push them into early marriages. It is feared that education would make them disrespectful to their husbands. Because their bodies are not fully developed, most of these girl-brides end up developing vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF), which is a fistula between bladder and vagina, caused by prolonged labour or rape. One consequence is that women cannot control their urine anymore, which is discharged via the vagina. They are then seen as dirty, and their husbands often abandon them or take ‘newer’ wives. The north contributes more than two thirds to Nigeria’s high maternal mortality rates of 545 per 100,000 live births.

During a tour of Katsina state in October 2013, I met several young mothers with heart-rending stories, from horrifying birth experiences to dealing alone with sick children. Habiba Sadiq, a young woman living in Angwar Agarge, told me that she has six surviving children and has been married for seven years – but she is just 20 years old. Her co-wife Sadia, 14 years of age, already has two children. These young mothers have to deal with the typical conflicts of polygamy, with the hardships of giving birth and raising children, despite still being children themselves.

In another village, Aisha, 18 years old, told me how her husband of eight years almost married another wife after Aisha started to manifest symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease (STD), even though she had contracted the disease from him. Sadly, Habiba, Sadia and Aisha are no exceptions – their experiences are common features in Nigeria’s north. Sitting in the hallowed chamber of the Senate is former Governor of Zamfara state, Ahmed Sani Yerima, who in 2010 took a 14-year-old Egyptian bride. His action was illegal, contravening the Child Rights Act (2003) which forbids marriage of anyone under the age of 18. Nonetheless, Yerima has not been held accountable by any Nigerian authority.

In northern Nigeria, there are various potent threats to the emancipation and empowerment of women, not only the terrorist group Boko Haram. What makes the recent Chibok abduction more painful is the fact that it will erode the little successes being recorded towards girls’ education and gender equality. It is likely that even more girls will now stay at home. The campaign towards equal rights has to continue more forcefully.

It goes without saying, moreover, that the many demonstrations demanding government action to save the kidnapped girls are right. The authorities must rescue the girls and ensure that such acts of terrorism do not occur in the future.

Damilola Oyedele is Senior Correspondent, Foreign Affairs/Gender, at THISDAY Newspaper. She lives in Abuja, Nigeria. [email protected]