As the car meanders its way through the muddy terrain into the communities, the curious children gather in their large number, probably wondering why the "strangers" have come to disturb their peace. As with children in the countryside, most are half-clad in their innocence. The adults, who already knew the mission of the visitors, probably because of the vehicle’s logo, send out messages to those that are necessary for the visitors to see. As soon as the car screeches to a halt, the neighbourhood brims with men and children, but not women for obvious reasons. Some peep through windows or fence to catch a glimpse of the happenings around them.
The various communities are united by a common denominator: poverty. Their
living standard typifies the classic written by Frantz Fanon, which he called:
“The Wretched of the Earth”. Although the book was written with a North African
perspective, the grave underdevelopment enveloping these communities in Nigeria
could have made them the subject of the book. With barely passable roads, mud
and rustic grass huts that passed for houses, the level of ignorance that has
reduced them to perpetual hewers of wood and drawers of water, is
Miles apart from indices of modern development in their immediate environment, they are still held down by ignorance, which rules lives. Their environments exemplify societies in decay. Although the communities are in the three states of Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara in the North West geo-political zone of the country, this common strain that runs through their way of life, has retarded their progress and made life short and brutish.
Education has been recognised as the most important factor used by man to conquer his environment and it has charted his destiny. Although there are schools established in these communities, there are not enthusiastically patronised due to age-long cultural barriers. Stories were told of how some of the schools had to be shut down for sometime due to lack of patronage while others remain dilapidated and unkempt. While the male child has a choice to attend, his female counterpart is strictly discouraged from pursuing even the basic elementary western education. Her ambitions are tied to the aprongstrings of culture and religion. This probably explains the rot and complete backwardness of these communities because mankind’s immense progress, which is evident in many landmarks, is attributed to education. It is incontrovertible to suggest that when these communities shunned education, progress appears to have deserted them for now.
However, there is a silver lining on the wall for these communities through a window of opportunity being provided by ActionAid International, Nigeria, an international not-for-profit organisation devoted to working with the poor. This commitment aimed at elevating the poor from their deplorable situation is at the root of “Enhancing Girls’ Basic Education in Northern Nigeria” (EGBENN) project being prosecuted in nine local governments and 28 communities in the aforementioned states with support from Novib Oxfam, Netherlands.
According to Dr. Otive Igbuzor, country director of AAIN, the organisation works with the poor and marginalized people to ensure that they are empowered to demand and achieve their basic rights. He says they work in an environment to promote basic rights and ensure that pro-poor governance is enhanced at all levels of governace. Part of their brief, he adds, is also to promote gender equity and see the rights of women enhanced.
"ActionAid’s vision is a world without poverty in which every person can exercise their right to a life of dignity and its mission is to work with the poor and marginalised people to eradicate poverty by overcoming the injustice and inequity that cause it", Igbuzor explains.
It is within this context that the organization started its Enhancing Girls Basic Education in Northern Nigeria (EGBENN) project in the three states where it is working in three local councils in each state with its partners on a pilot scheme. According to coordinators of the project, Mr. Kolawole Babatunde and Mrs. Azuka Menkiti, AAIN discovered after a research that there was gap in favour of boys in school enrollment, retention and completion in these states. "The study on girls’ education revealed factors affecting girls’ education as cost of education, school environment, government policies and the culture of the people amongst others. There are no policies that specifically address gender issues thereby leaving room for the gender gap", they said.
The organisation realised that it was important that the gap in school enrollment between the boys and girls is bridged and ensure that all children enroll and complete good quality education. The challenge is to attain gender parity while still ensuring that all children go to school. The project is designed to build on the Commonwealth Education Fund initiative which seeks to strengthen civil society and communities to demand for the supply of education especially for girls, monitor government spending on education and promote innovative ways of attaining access to education for girls. Specifically, it will contribute to the attainment of two of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); achieving universal primary education and the elimination of gender disparities in education at all levels by 2015.
According to the coordinators, the intervention is structured within the framework of supporting civil society to advocate, seek policy reform and accountability from the education authority at the local, state and national levels. The project attempts to secure sustained and meaningful citizen participation at all levels thereby increasing accountability, transparency and responsiveness of education systems.
This involves capacity building for establishing and supporting such novel and an all inclusive strategies such as School Management Committees (SMCs) including Parents Teachers Associations (PTAs). The project has also built the capacity of civil society organizations and community leaders and enabled them to fulfill and extend their role, track education budgets, provide links between the schools and the wider community, and engage with local and state governments.
Another innovation embedded in the project implementation is the Reflect methodology, which has been used to implement the programme guided by the overall concern for building citizen participation and capacity to sustain demand for transparency, accountability and participatory governance. The officials said reflect is an approach that helps to create an open and democratic environment in which everyone is able to contribute, act and reflect on their expectations from the rulers. The Reflect methodology is assisting the communities to take control and it has also addressed critical issues such as gender, communication and power relations.
All the officials of the Local Government Education Authorities (LGEAs) and top state officials spoken to in the three states lauded the project as a viable complementary effort of the government. They welcomed it with so much enthusiastic support. Alhaji Bala Sakaba, Secretary to the Kebbi State Government, described it as a commendable project, which will be sustained and replicated in other communities in the state.
"The government appreciates very much what ActionAid is doing in the state and the government is already committed to the promotion of girl child education in the state. It has a policy of ensuring that in each community, parents come together to form committees that oversee the enrollment of the children in their communities in their various primary schools. The state government also has a policy or law that prohibits the withdrawal of female children from primary schools especially and now up to the junior secondary school level. Any parent that withdraws his child from school with a view to giving her out in marriage is liable to be sanctioned by the government.
"The government is also creating awareness that unless you allow a girl child to go to school, subsequently you may not have the nurses and teachers that you need that will serve the community being a predominantly Muslim community. It is preferred that the medical personnel that attend to female patients should also be females and the parents are being made aware of this for us to have these female professionals in future to assist their gender partners", Sakaba told THISDAY in an interview.
At the core of the strategy is the building of competence, capacity and empowerment of local organizations and institutions to carry forward and sustain momentum on the importance of girls’ education. It has also placed a responsibility on the womenfolk to be part of decision making in their various communities and step out of the cultural inhibitions limiting their input.
The overall goal of the project, which is to support and strengthen current initiatives by civil society on accelerating girls’ access to basic quality education through advocacy and the establishment and support of School Management Committees (SMC) appears to be succeeding in some of the communities visited.
Speaking to THISDAY in an interview, Mrs. Deborah Ezra Dikki, executive director, Youth Advancement Organisation of Nigeria (YAON), an implementing partner of the EGBENN project, stated that it has helped in putting more girls in school.
"Before the intervention of ActionAid International in Kebbi State, the situation of the girl child education has been something else. I mean it was alarming because it is only schools in the headquarters that you see a large number of girls, but when you go to the local communities, you find a situation whereby out of 150 enrollments, only three are girls. So, the situation was quite poor before the intervention of AAIN. The situation was also bad because even the parents were not sensitised on the importance of education. They were schools in their communities quite well, but they were not encouraging their girls to go to school and that was a big problem before AAIN came", Dikki said.
Speaking on changes that have taken place since the advent of the project in specific communities in Kebbi State, she said: "In Sabiyel and Tungwani communities in Aleiro council area, there are schools that have been built long ago and by the time we went in there, very few girls were in the school. Now, the enrollment figure has increased and girls now go to school. Even when the session had not ended, a lot of girls had been registered to start the new school calendar in September. When you look at the issue of the parents, they are now actively involved in the issue of girls’ education unlike in the past when they do not bother about what goes on in the school. The intervention of ActionAid has created opportunities as a result of the many advocacy and sensitisation visits embarked upon. Parents now show personal interest on what goes on in the school. Take the situation of Tungwani, Ngaski council area, before EGBENN, the school was a mud school that was built by the community. With better enlightenment created by the project, the community mobilised their 10 per cent counterpart funding and approached the Kebbi State Poverty Reduction Programme, which has built a new block of classrooms for the community".
In her comments, Hajia Buzuwa Umar – Chairperson, Education Committee, Federation of Muslim Women Association Nigeria (FOMWAN), Kebbi State Chapter, said the project has helped the communities. "The situation of the girl child education in the selected communities had been very poor. The enrollment figure was so low in the various communities and that has been attributed to a number of issues both culturally and religiously, but with the coming in of ActionAid to assist in the implementation of the EGBENN project, the enrollment has increased in those selected communities. We have also seen enthusiasm on the part of the parents themselves, who initially were not in support of sending their female children to school", Umar said.
Asked if the project will be sustainable given that it is time-bound, she said: "With increased awareness on the project and the response of people to it, I’m sure it will be sustainable. After the first training we had, people have realised that you don’t rely solely on government for everything and communities have started coming into partnership with governmental and non-governmental organisations to execute projects for the benefit of their people. I think that if ActionAid goes one day, the community should be able to sustain those projects, but they need to ensure that the communities are put on a sound footing first".
Also speaking on sustainability, Sakaba stressed: "We expect that we would have learned some lessons from whatever activity they are doing and therefore, the state government will strive to replicate all these activities in promoting the education of the girl child across the state. Infact, now, the universal basic education is compulsory, so, if we receive reports of deliberate withdrawal from any community, certainly, government will take action against such persons.
"We are also encouraging the local government authorities, the councilors, the community leaders to really ensure that their various communities come out to participate fully in the education development of their community, local government, the state and the nation. It is an opportunity that no one should miss".
The project success story is found in Nahuche primary school, Bungudu council area of Zamfara State. Spurred by the mobilisation effort of the SMC, the school was overwhelmed by the new enrollment figure which included underage children. The headmaster, Mallam Na'Abba D'Nahuche started a novel nursery class for the underage children preparatory for enrollment into primary one when they come of age. Now, out of a total school population of 434, girls are 131, a great improvement over the situation in previous years, according to D'Nahuche. He added that the SMC has facilitated the purchase of books and chairs for the use of the pupils.
In Gamji village, Bakura council area of Zamfara State, THISDAY learnt that in the history of the town, no female pupil had gone beyond primary five before being withdrawn for marriage, but this year, some made it to secondary school. The girls proceeding to Government Girls Secondary School, Talata Mafara include Sekina Kabir, Lewisa Jafarau, Zulaiha Abdulmalik and Zarau Ahmadu.
Sani Garba, headmaster at Gamji, also noted that the SMC has repaired doors and windows, purchased drugs for the First Aid box. He noted that this has increased the number of girls in school from 109 last year to 152 out of a total population of 554 in 2006. He said the school now has debating and health clubs and hopes for an increased enrollment in the coming year.