The United Nations has dedicated every October 11 as the International Day of the Girl-Child, a strategy adopted by the global body to draw attention to the challenges facing female adolescents all over the world. In devoting this day to the issues of the girl-child, UNICEF has argued that “every child deserves to reach her or his full potential, but gender inequalities in their lives and in the lives of those who care for them hinder this reality.”
Some of the statistics found on the organisation’s website lament that “every year, 12 million girls are married before their 18th birthday. Globally, 1 in 5 girls becomes a mother before that age; nearly 7,000 adolescent girls aged 15 to 24 are infected with HIV every week; [and that] 98 million girls who should be in secondary school are not.”
Though UNICEF’s statistics are based on a global survey, there is no doubt that the findings resonate in Nigeria. The girl-child in Nigeria, especially those born in rural areas, often gets married at a very early age and suffers from a poor basic education system and hostile cultural practices. In some extreme cases, like the insurgency in the North-East, the girl-child’s desire for education can be frustrated by insecurity. The abduction of schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State and Dapchi in Yobe State by Boko Haram factions is a clear evidence that the girl-child’s desire for education can be aborted by insecurity.
The failure of the primary health care delivery system in Nigeria negatively affects the girl-child. In both rural areas and urban centres, they do not have access to qualified medical personnel who should handle the peculiar health challenges of the girl-child. They are, therefore, exposed to unwanted pregnancies and all sorts of infections, the most devastating of which is HIV. For some, it is the life-threatening vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF) which leaves them with a serious disability after childbirth due to the fact that they are exposed to the excruciating experience of childbirth at a tender age.
Also, there is the nagging crime of rape which is on the increase across the world. In most cases, the victims of rape are the adolescent girl-child. It is shocking that this crime is committed by adults or even elderly persons against young girls, leaving them bruised both physically and psychologically for life. Nigeria has had more than its fair share of this crime, with many unthinkable stories of incest and sex-slavery.
The girl-child faces numerous challenges. But they all represent a challenge to government, women groups and the civil society movements in the country. Government has come up with many initiatives that should encourage the girl-child to pursue knowledge up to the junior secondary school level. Apart from the Universal Basic Education policy, government has established girls-only schools across the country. However, this policy design has been implemented half-heartedly, and schools lack qualified teachers and necessary infrastructure that would make learning impactful. Under such circumstances, the years the girl-child spends at school is considered as a waste because of the low quality of educational attainment and the fact that they would not have acquired skills that expose them to job opportunities. For those who press on to complete the senior secondary school, the story is not usually too different. As a result, many parents would quickly give out their daughters in marriage at the slightest opportunity to do so.
Government should step up its commitment to the quality of basic education. Also, primary health care hospitals should be funded and made functional so that the girl-child can easily access medicare necessary for their delicate and peculiar health issues. The executive and judiciary should ensure that the Child Rights Act is implemented all over the country, and child abuse, especially rape, is visited with severe punishment. These measures, and many more, if taken seriously by the authorities will help to meliorate the plight of the girl child in Nigeria.