With acrimony in my heart, I watched in silence as nineteen-year-old Hajara recounted her ordeal to me, left arm in one bearing as though she was aiming at something. She was weary and her voice quivered as she spoke. Her husband had divorced her; she was abandoned with three children, no job whatsoever, zilch to fall back on. She narrated how her (ex) husband did not permit her to complete her schooling or learn a trade; he came to the conclusion that she would be more advantageous at home. Despite being an educated and polished man he was of the opinion that it will be more worthwhile for her to stay in the kitchen, you know because that is the place of a woman.
She married him after her junior secondary school education; she was not allowed to attend university or complete her secondary education despite her yearning to do so. It was not imperative for a woman to go to school, they said. It will be more meaningful to educate her brother than to educate her.
“No husband, no money, no degree”, I managed to pick that up as she carried on murmuring barely audible words. Hajara’s (ex) husband was not going to take responsibility for the children. “Ba haka ya kamata ba!” she shrieked as though she was fighting with someone. Her face now completely soaked in tears. I tried to mumble some words of encouragement; even my own tongue failed me.
Hajara’s tale is not of a singular female whose world has been turned upside down, she is a symbol of the girl child in (Northern) Nigeria. Worse than this, not many people are ready to fight for her, she’s alone, with the familiarity of her world slowly crumbling at her feet.
Right to Education
Women’s right watch, Nigeria and United Nations development program (UNDP) reported that Northern Nigeria has the highest number of females out of school. Of the 56.5 million young ones worldwide who are not obtaining formal education, over 10 million live in Nigeria and over 6.5 million in Northern Nigeria – and in all, these numbers keep rising yearly. The aforementioned data has more disproportionate effect on females than males
According to Nigeria’s gender report 2014, In the Northwest 62.8% of females are without education, 61.1% in the Northeast and 38.8% in the North central. To be more specific, states like Kebbi, Sokoto, Jigawa, Zamfara, Katsina, Bauchi, Yobe, Borno, Gombe and Niger have Nigeria’s worst girl child education and highest illiteracy level – These statistics are no doubt harrowing.
Notwithstanding that there are numerous factors responsible for the glitches adjoining girl child education in Northern Nigeria, the cultural perspective cannot be overlooked. This standpoint argues that females ought not to get an education simply because they are girls, such rights should be reserved for males. Socio cultural ethics, values, customs, traditions and norms inhibit girls from gaining educational opportunities to the same extent as their male counterparts.
The attainment of girls right to education in the North can tackle some of Nigeria’s severely entrenched inequities, which drags millions of females to an existence without quality education – and of course a life of numerous unexploited chances. Due to fear of losing cultural identity, we have missed out on the Nana Asmau’s, Bilkisu Yusuf’s, Fatima Adamu’s and Zainab Alkali’s of our generation.
Violence against women – Forced early marriage
In a sane society, etiquette guarantees women freedom from violence. This is not the reality in Nigeria as there is dominance of violence against women in our society. Violence here does not translate to only rape, hitting females, throwing jabs or exerting physical force. It also encompasses forced early marriages and female genital mutilation.
A report by Women’s right watch and women in Law and development Africa (WiLDAF), 45% of 15 year olds are married against their resolve in the North, 73% are forced at age 18. These females are liable to be victims of domestic violence, extremely susceptible to sexually transmitted ailments, and face high risk of difficulties, even death, during pregnancy and of course child birth.
Although some Northern states like Jigawa, Kwara, Nasarawa, Taraba and Plateau have adopted the Child’s right act preventing females below 18 from being ‘forced’ to marry, due to prevailing socio cultural beliefs, so many others in the Northwest and east are yet to embrace the act.
It should be noted that forced marriages vary from arranged marriages. In a forced marriage, one or both of the partners (in this case the female) cannot give valid consent to the marriage. Consent and independence are two key elements, amongst many others, that are necessary when one is entering into a marital contract with someone. These elements are missing in a situation where a girl child is forced to marry an adult – and therein lies the problem.
While there are many reasons for forced-early marriages, the cultural perspective apart from infringing on the female’s right to choose her partner also causes deep psychological, emotional, medical and even legal consequences.
Majority of forced child brides have little or no access to contraception and/or reproductive health information and services. They are exposed to recurrent and hasty sexual relations and to constant childbirth before they are psychologically ready and physically mature. The victims tend to leave their education unfinished, are often isolated from their peers, limit any possibility of economic independence from their spouse. Most times this sort of marriage results to violence because it is based on power of a partner over the other; worst of all the girl is left with no legal protection in the case of separation.
Tackling forced early marriage is a difficult task, a lot has to be in place. Laws alone won’t end it; community dialogues need to be put in place to intensify awareness on hazards of forced early marriage. Traditional and religious leaders also need to get on board; this will make the movement simpler as they play fundamental roles in speaking out particularly to their community members. Young girls who are campaigners for change should be fortified, they should be aided in discussing overall rights and laws and the effect of child marriage. Finally, empowering females through improvement of access to vocational skills and schools will expand their chances of acquiring secondary school education.
Violence against women – Female genital mutilation
According to the US library of medicine, Nigeria has the highest absolute number of FGM (female genital mutilation) in the world (due to its large population). Accounting for about one quarter of the estimated 120-140 circumcised women in the world. In northern Nigeria alone, Female genital mutilation ‘enjoys’ prevalence of about 30%.
For those who are unsure of what FGM entails, it comprises of procedures leading to partial or total removal of the external genitalia and/or injury to the female genital organs – it is also known as female circumcision. The practice is founded in traditional/cultural beliefs and has no health benefits. The notion is that FGM preserves virginity and protects the chastity of the woman – in the core north the cut edges of the external genitalia are soiled with discharges from a snail with the belief that the snail being a slow animal would somehow influence the circumcised female to “go slow” with sexual activities in the future. In other words, many communities are of the idea that FGM reduces a woman’s libido and consequently helps her repel illicit sensual acts. It is also associated with cultural principles of modesty, which include the concept that women are “beautiful” and “clean” after removal of body parts that are considered “unclean” and “male like”.
Instant consequences of the custom involve severe/continuous bleeding which could lead to death, excruciating pain resulting from cutting sensitive areas without the use of anaesthetic, urinary tract infections, tissue swelling, risk of transmitting HIV/AIDS, damage to organs such as: anus, bladder and urethra. The long-term consequences on the other hand are more tormenting – extremely painful menstruation for the female due to the build up of urine and blood in the uterus leading to internal sexual organs and bladder swelling, scar and keloid formation on the vulva wound, severe pain during intercourse which may entail physical uneasiness, difficult child birth which in the case of prolonged labour may lead to death of the baby or brain damage.
The federal government of Nigeria took a bold step in May to outlaw the practice of female genital mutilation in the country; however, the enactment of this law alone is not enough to end the practice. A change in culture is required to ensure the females will no longer have to go through the procedure. Like the director of Gender, violence and rights at the international centre for research on women, Stella Mukasa, rightly put it, ‘Global experience conveys to us that eventually, it is through changing attitudes, and not just passing laws, that we will end female genital mutilation’.
It is factual that tradition/culture is relevant in some aspects of the society – such as helping to mould the views and behavioural patterns of the society. However, some traditional practices like FGM are near psychosis and need to be permanently tackled. Females should have a right to decide what should or should not be done to/with their bodies. There is need for joint and informative discussions on the dangers of FGM especially in areas where it prevails, community level engagement and programs that work to empower girls are also vital. The process of change within those areas is a collective one; it should be a communal led action. The more educated and informed the woman and her community is, the better the comprehension of hazards associated with FGM. In summary, grass root efforts should be taken to kick against female genital mutilation.
The level at which oppressive cultural norms has saturated into even the so called “modernists” cultural practices cannot be over emphasized as they clearly manifest in the characters of it’s progeny today. There are still very much left over residues of such indoctrination despite the so called “post-colonial reforms” that have taken place – which may have even exacerbated some of the misogynist cultures in the first place. Who would have ever thought that it (the indoctrination/control) would descend to our women folk posing as anarchists and annihilators of humanity aka suicide bombers than remaining “creators” and ‘protectors’?
From all the above, it is apparent that culture passed from one generation to the next does inhibit female rights. While it has its advantages, it is also to blame for several cases involving suppression of female rights in the North. The evidence clearly shows that short-changing women is a direct path to producing a bastardized society that no level of Faithfulness can sustain.
Democratisation of representative voices among existing female’s narratives in the North is a key imperative in confronting subjugation of rights.
I implore all females to become advocates for protection and extension of women’s human rights in the North, for all the Hajara’s out there, the ones who were forced to marry against their will, the ones who have been denied the right education because they are female, the ones constantly abused sexually, the dead ones who lost the battle to female genital mutilation, the ones who had to flee from home to avoid being trafficked and the ones who are constantly been told how they are irrelevant to the society because they are girls.
Solidarity is what is needed to keep the ‘change train’ moving effectively beyond just our needs but for others.
Image: Open Society Foundations