‘Gender discrimination, a big
issue as girls face unique set of barriers’
Education offers children a ladder out of poverty and a path to a promising future. This is why quality education is a right for all children as it remains the key to opportunities. But, as ISIOMA MADIKE finds out in this report, poor and inequitable access to former learning is still an issue of urgent national importance
Education, it is said, is a great driver of social, economic and political progress. As people learn to read, count and reason critically, their prospects for health and prosperity expand exponentially. But advances in education have not benefited everyone equally—and primary school enrollment rates tell only part of the regrettable story.
Thousands of children who start primary school are unable to finish and still more miss out on secondary school. A recent media dialogue to promote equity for children in some parts of the North facilitated by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) in collaboration with Child Right Information Bureau, Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, Abuja, revealed sometime unpleasant. A boy, who identified himself simply as Salisu, was found begging other pupils for something to eat at one of the primary schools in the region. Salisu, 10, was barely five years old when he left for a journey of the unknown.
He appeared too young to remember his surname when he landed on the streets to start fending for himself. He could not remember exactly what happened to his parents but said he lived with his uncle for about six months before he was beaten and sent out of the home for allegedly stealing two pieces of meat.
This sent him to the streets to start a life defined by extreme hardship. “That was how I ended up on the streets,” he said with the help of an interpreter. Wondering up and down the streets with no place to call his home has become the lifestyle of this homeless street kid since then.
He survives with little or no food in his belly with no hope of what the future holds for him. Being awakened by the morning breeze to go into the streets, guarding people’s vehicles, jostling for a few naira to buy food has become his daily activity. He struggles to find a safe place to sleep and proper blankets has become a major cause for concern for him as he usually resort to cardboards to warm his tiny body. Such is the life of other streets kids in most urban centres in Nigeria. They have been left out of all forms of education in Nigeria.
They said even though they were struggling and suffering, they are not worried about what comes along their way as long they are alive. With a fast-paced lifestyle becoming normal, everyone seeks the comforts of their house at the end of the day. But many take things for granted.
The truth is many are never thankful to God for making them fortunate enough to live and relish the successes of life. The day breaks and they get into motion. Either trying to do some chores or just pretending to, everyone seems busy. Even then everything seems so usual and complete, in a way. Life moves at its regular pace for most people.
But deserts do exist beyond their green pastures. It’s just that they are overlooked by their moneyblinded eyes. A child, maybe a couple of years old, was wandering on the streets, walking bare feet and in rags. He mopped cars with a filthy piece of cloth but no one seems to notice him.
However, only a few could clearly see those countless dreams brewing in Salisu’s hopeful eyes, his innocent smiles complemented by an easy-going expression on his face. He literally captured many minds for a while. As some moved closer, they saw an innocent soul in search of a few coins, which meant the world to him. Many of these young children on the streets would protest unnecessarily to slide down the windows, their little fingers got stuck in the gaps, gasping to be released, but nobody bothered. What an irony of life. A single coin, which holds no value for many, meant a meal to them.
Their starving eyes got stuck at a fortunate kid, almost their age, gulping a beverage and munching chips in his father’s air-conditioned car. Probably, they want a taste of the same. But then who is going to buy them all these? That’s the fate they were born with. They died every moment! Caught in the vicious circle of poverty and misfortunes, their chances at a normal life were snatched away mercilessly. Hardship killed their every little desire. It was quite obvious that life was a struggle for them. Fighting every moment for their survival, they begged for money or food.
Disregarded as lifeless rascals by the fortunate ones, they were born in a ruined shack and nurtured by poverty. Their only sources of entertainment were the used or discarded toys. On a daily basis, people rush towards their respective ways, paying no attention to these little children on the streets.
Standing unfriendly under no shade, they waited for no one in particular. From nowhere, some kindhearted people slipped a few wads in their tiny hands. They said nothing and left with a cold blank stare. The nights are often penetratingly cold and without any form of shelter, the cold can make a night seem excruciatingly long. Sometime, they are three, huddled up on a piece of cardboard and cover themselves with a sack and a piece of plastic on top of their frail thin bodies. Any unfamiliar noise awakens them; the constant fear of attack, robbery or what might be worse: a threat of Sodomy alarmingly lurks at every night-fall!
The boys and girls live a seminomadic life, constantly haunted by thugs, watchmen and even the police; their entire existence consists of surviving through the starkest poverty, relentlessly forced to move from one place to the next, seeking shelter in abandoned buildings or empty half-roof shops in the market place during the cold nights. The tens would lie close together, keeping each other warm and comforted throughout the night. Before long, dawn breaks and their day begins.
Their clothes are damp and dirty, smothered with mud, ash and feces; the stench from each of them is enough to make one’s stomach churn! And they bath in ponds. After bathing, they often come away smelling even worse than before. Once they have bathed and washed their clothes they let the morning sun dry them off and lay for the wind to dry their clothes. The bath made them unsteady and they laugh and tell jokes, like any other boy or girl their age would do. A bath makes them feel “brand new” and for a moment they forget their horrific existence, with conditions that more resemble ones of animals, than of human beings. Finally hunger sets in and gets the best of them; they hurry to a nearby junction where the traffic-jams consistently bring the cars to a slow stop. The kids spread out and wander from car to car begging for money. Hardly anyone gives them any; most people despise them and call them names or hurriedly close their windows and lock their doors at the mere sight of them. “It was so much easier to earn money this way a few years ago” Salisu said.
”Now we are often forced to steal or starve or find scraps of food in the garbage dumps.” Noon approaches and the children have only managed to get a few naira between them. As they head back, they decide to hide the money somewhere, out of fear of being robbed by older “street-boys and girls” who, every day demand money in exchange for protection. “A few naira is enough to lose your life over, if you put up a fight” one of the young chaps told Saturday Telegraph. The signs of starvation are inherent; the children’s bodies are frail, sickly and malnourished and their eyes blank and distant. They throw themselves down on the floor and fall asleep. Most of them have stories so dark they delivered them to the hands of the streets. Stories they never want to revisit but which they forever are unable to forget.
The early evening is spent stalking the large garbage piles on the nearby dump; relentlessly searching for something to fill their aching bellies with. As the darkness of night approaches and the traffic slowly dies down, the boys light a fire to stay warm by sitting there, their voices, their unheard dreams; dreams of a good life, of going to school, getting a job and a home – and in their hearts, the silent untold dream of being loved. These summed the pathetic life of street children sewn in abject poverty. It is a major barrier to school enrolment and completion. Many have said that it is the greatest barrier to high-quality education. Even when primary school is technically free, additional charges for uniforms, textbooks, teacher salaries and school maintenance create financial barriers for many families.
Parents consistently say these indirect costs keep them from sending their children to school. In such instances, the kids may never get the opportunity to go to school like their mates, even though they would have loved to. But they are not alone in this seeming cross road. A mother, who declined to be identified, told this reporter a story of her 17-year-old son, who had never been to school because he is deaf and has never had the opportunity to learn sign language. The child was put on a waiting list for a special school when he was eight years old but at 12 he was rejected for being too old. For 17 years, Musa has been sitting at home unable to communicate with anyone aside from pointing, despite being perfectly intellectually capable of learning and contributing to society.
A lot of African countries have been working hard to improve children’s access to basic education, but there’s still a lot left to be done. 32.6 million children of primary-school age and 25.7 million adolescents are still not going to school in sub-Saharan Africa. But worse, at over 10.5 million, Nigeria has the highest number of children out of school in the world, recent reports said.
According to UNICEF, Nigeria’s population growth has put pressure on the country’s resources, public services and infrastructure. With children under the age of 15 accounting for 45 per cent of about 180 million population, the burden on education has become overwhelming. And while primary school enrolment has increased in recent years, net attendance is only about 70 per cent, which translates to Nigeria having over 10.5 million out-ofschool children. 60 per cent of those children are said to come from the northern part of Nigeria. The increased enrolment rates have also created challenges in ensuring quality education as resources are spread more thinly. It is not rare to see cases where there are 100 pupils for one teacher, or where students learn under trees or seat on bare floors because of lack of classrooms and chairs.
The Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, in January, claimed that the number of outof- school kids in Nigeria dropped from 10.5 million to 8.6 million in the last three years: “When President Muhammadu Buhari came into power in 2015, UNICEF said out-of-school children in Nigeria was about 10.5 million. “But I want to tell Nigerians that with the effort of this government, especially with the school feeding programme, it dropped from 10.5 million to 8.6 million as at last year.” While applauding the efforts of government in the feeding programme, many are not taking in by what Adamu said. Some have contested the assertion.
“That’s untrue. And we need to face the fact that the Nigerian education system has undoubtedly failed millions of children. In northeastern Nigeria, conflict has deprived many children of access to education. Teachers have been killed, and schools burned down or closed for security reasons,” one of the commentators, who craved anonymity, said.
Also, Save the Children Nigeria, a humanitarian organisation that promotes child rights, has said that more than six in 10 Nigerian children have no early childhood education. The organisation made this known in a campaign that focuses on reaching excluded children.
According to it, more children in the North than in the South face a daunting life, have no access to education and are more affected by poverty. “Sadly, Children deprived of basic primary education are largely located in the North with 15 states,” the group tweeted.
The statistics, according to the organisation, are worse for females. “Malnutrition is higher in the North than in the South and is far more among female children than males in Nigeria.” Recent reports by the UNICEF revealed a startling rise in child brides, occasioned by the incessant kidnaps of young girls by Boko Haram insurgents. The girls are often sexually abused and used as domestic slave, UNICEF had said. Save the Children Nigeria agrees with UNICEF as it said that early marriage is a serious issue and is more preponderant in the North. It said that Nigeria must end the practice of child marriage and the perpetuation of poverty through the practice, as early marriage shows how children are left behind in education as a result protection deprivation.
The organisation also asked the government to “fast-track the implementation of the Universal Basic Education Act with emphasis on education for girls”. But this issue is not limited to the North alone. For instance, the Anambra State Commissioner for Education, Professor Kate Omenugha, once said that the stereotype over the years in the East had been that the region is noted for the high rate of boy-child drop-out because of the commercial activities in cities like Onitsha and Nnewi. Surprisingly, she admitted, Anambra State has had its share of girl-child drop-out in the riverine areas were girls are married off at the age of 12 and less. The commissioner painted a gloomy picture of those riverine communities, which she said are mostly farmers and place little value to education.
She, however, said the state government is working assiduously to reverse the trend as several policies have been formulated to get the drop-outs enrolled in schools and provide lifelong skills that will equip the state to become one of the three top states with the lowest illiteracy rate. Another is shortage of classrooms. Largely rural and marginalised areas lack classrooms to accommodate those who are not in school. More classrooms will alleviate overcrowding, cut class sizes and reduce the long travel distances.
Children in rural areas sometimes trek two to three hours to attend school. Dilapidated classrooms also need refurbishing or upgrading to acceptable minimum standards for learning. There is also the need to fulfill the right to education in humanitarian crises. Many out-of school children live in conflict-affected areas. But in emergency situations, education can save and sustain lives.
A safe school environment can give children a sense of normalcy during a crisis. Schools can also aid in post-conflict reconstruction. Yet only two per cent of all humanitarian aid goes into education, according to reports. Gender discrimination is equally a big issue. Girls face a unique set of barriers to education, such as child marriage, early pregnancy, and expectations related to domestic labour, not to mention unsafe travel and a lack of sanitary facilities. Many in the North under-value girls’ education, with the result that fewer girls enroll and those who do, are more likely to drop out.
Some 34 million adolescent girls are out of school around the world, and women make up nearly two thirds (almost 500 million) of the world’s illiterate adults. The gender gap is said to have significantly narrowed in primary education but there has been limited progress at the secondary level. Child labour equally contributes handsomely to the nagging problem of education in Nigeria. Poverty and vulnerability are pushing far too many young children out of school and into the world of work. Some children remain in school, but are disadvantaged doubling up studies with work. For households living in poverty, children may be pulled out of school and into work in the face of external shocks such as rising costs, or a parent’s sickness or unemployment.
By leaving school to enter the labour market prematurely, children miss a chance to lift themselves, their families, and their communities out of a cycle of poverty. Sometimes these children are exposed to the worst forms of labour that is damaging to their physical, mental and emotional well-being. Nutrition has also been identified as one of the most important factors for brain development of babies in the womb, and children from birth until about five. Mothers, who eat food rich in proteins, certain fats, iodine, and others, tend to pass these on to their babies, either in the womb or via breast milk.
These nutrients aid the brain development of babies and set the stage for their cognitive ability, or their capacity to learn. The nutritional requirements for brain development persist until children are about five years.
At this point, the stage is set for life. Children who get to the age of five in “peak” condition are set to learn more and do more for the rest of their lives, compared to children who do not get there in “peak” condition. To put this differently, children who get proper nutrition from the womb until their early childhood are going to be smarter and learn better than children who don’t get proper nutrition. This stage is set even before the child walks into a primary school. What this means is, even before they get to primary school, even before they get to the hands of the poor-quality teachers, even before they get to the dilapidated structures, they are already at a disadvantage; a disadvantage that stays with them for life.
The problems unfortunately do not end there. They continue into primary school too. However, the head teacher of Army Children Special Primary School in Tofa Local Government Area, Hajia Harira Ahmed, confirmed to this reporter that the government’s free feeding programme had achieved far-reaching success. This development, she said, had brought huge relief and has improved enrollment in schools within Kano State.
“Nutrition is a major issue in the rural areas and because our pupils can now access free food in school, the attraction has kept increasing. The free school fee is also a major motivation for indigent pupils and we are trying our best to make representation to government on the need to provide more free books than we are having at the moment,” Ahmed said. Infrastructure has remained a major issue in schools in Nigeria, as pupils still take lessons squeezed in a few chairs and desks available. The recent visit to some schools scattered across the country revealed a lot; the major stain being the steady decline of the buildings. It is obvious most of them are living in the glory of their past. The decay, however, is most visible in the classrooms and lavatories.
The World Bank Group had warned that the education sector in Nigeria is in crisis and currently widening the social inclusion gaps in the country. The group said this in its World Development Report for 2018 titled “Learning to Realise Education’s Promise” which was presented in Abuja in March this year. It called, in its report, for greater action and coordination of the education sector to achieve the objectives of poverty reduction.
It said millions of young students in low and middle-income brackets face the prospect of lost opportunities and lower wages in the future because their primary and secondary schools were failing to educate them to succeed in life. It further warned of a ‘learning crises as it believes that not only to be a wasted development opportunity but also a great injustice to children and young people everywhere.
Without learning, it said, education would fail to deliver on its promise to eliminate extreme poverty and create shared opportunity and prosperity for all. The report observed that even after several years in school, millions of children could not read, write or do basic mathematics. This learning crisis, according to the report, is widening social gaps instead of narrowing them. It added that young students disadvantaged by poverty, conflict, gender or disability got to adulthood without even the most basic skills of life.
The schools, in the early days of Nigeria’s formation, were what one could wish for. But, not any more as many have degenerated and become eyesores. There is no longer any sign of their status as planned schools right from their entrances, particularly the primary and secondary schools.
Most of these school buildings have been bastardised over the years, while those wearing rainbow new looks have only paints applied without extensive repair work. Many of them lack access to water and sewage disposals. Roads leading to some of them are not easily accessible and are in terrible states of disrepair with heap of refuse that become worse whenever it rains. The once beautiful and attractive schools have today become environmental blights not only to people in their neighbourhood but also to the government, which built them. The schools are, indeed, becoming slums. Dirt, debris, acute shortage of basic amenities and infrastructural decay has crept in on the once vibrant institutions.