The International Day of the Girl Child slated for tomorrow (Monday) has again offered an opportunity for Nigeria to address problems militating against the advancement of the girl child. There is a need for governments at all levels to push for the empowerment of the girl child and fulfilment of her human rights which have long been hindered by varying factors which included education, culture and tradition, child marriage among others.
The United Nations Children Education Fund noted in a report that abuse in all its forms is a daily reality for many Nigerian children and only a fraction ever receive help.
It added that six out of every 10 children experience some form of violence–one in four girls and 10 per cent of boys have been victims of sexual violence.
Also, UNICEF noted that Nigeria has the largest number of child brides in Africa with more than 23 million girls and women married off as children, with most of them from poor and rural communities.
However, there are laws criminalising the offences against the girl child. Of such international laws which have been domesticated is the ‘Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, 2015’; which provides a legislative and legal framework for the prevention of all forms of violence against persons, particularly women and girls and the ‘Child Rights Act (2003)’, that “guarantees the rights of all children in Nigeria.”
However, not all states in Nigeria have passed and or assented to the laws as only 16 states had passed and assented to the VAPP Act. According to data from the Rule of Law and Empowerment Initiative, 11 states had yet to pass the Child Rights Act. The states included Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara, Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Yobe. The data further listed Kaduna State as the only state that had passed and assented to the law, while Imo and Anambra states were the earliest states to pass the law in 2004.
Despite these laws, Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world according to UNICEF, which also noted that one in every five out-of-school children in the world is in Nigeria.
The agency added that the country accounted for 45 per cent of out-of-school children in West Africa, while “30 per cent of girls aged 9-12 have never been to school.”
It further reported that about 10.5 million children aged 5-14years were not in school, while 61 per cent of 6-11 year-olds regularly attended primary school.
The continuous attacks on schools by bandits and kidnapping of schoolchildren had worsened the situation, with only 47.7 per cent of females now attending school in the north-eastern states, while 47.3 per cent of females attend school in the northwest.
However, UNICEF and women rights activists have called on states yet to domesticate the CRA to do so and urged commitment to fulfilling the obligations stated in the law. Also, in the event of this year’s International Day for the Girl Child, they called for an awareness of the salient issues surrounding the girl child.
The Nigeria Country Representative, UNICEF, Mr Peter Hawkins, stated that though 25 states had domesticated the Child Rights Act and 11 states had yet to do so, demanding commitment to fulfilling the obligations in the act to ensure its application was of top priority.
Hawkings said, “We would much prefer that all states would have domesticated it by now but what we don’t want is a state domesticating the Child Rights Act, 2003, and not have the mechanisms in place or the commitment to fulfil the obligations in it because children’s rights are all about obligations; obligations of local governments, structures to ensure they protect the child’s right at every stage. It is also about trying to give an environment for children to be able to express some of their concerns and where we can provide a solution to the problems.”
He further said that the challenges facing the girl child included access to basic education, adding “in terms of out-of-school children, we have been able to manage it but it is slightly higher among the girls than it is for the boys. The key issue here is about completing their education. Nigeria has one of the highest numbers of girls that are about to complete their education that means the alternative for the young girls is around that they marry, child labour, social domestic labour, reinforcing the inequalities between girls and boys in terms of finishing their education.
“If you look at the attack on girls education, the attack in Zamfara on February 26 earlier this year, that was the only secondary girl’s school in the two local government areas in that area. Therefore, girls have to travel far and therefore they boarded at those schools which make them more vulnerable. The attack on that school was because of their vulnerability.”
According to him, this year’s celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child is focused on the girl knowing their digital realities.
Hawkings said, “The International Day of the Girl Child is a fantastic opportunity to highlight not only the positive element girls can contribute to our society, communities and families but also some of the constraints that girls are facing at this time. It is a unique day. It promotes girls rights, highlights various issues such as inequalities between the girls and boys, the social-cultural norms that allow for discrimination and abuse suffered by girls around the world. It is a very important day not only to celebrate but also to address the salient problems that the girl child faces.
“We are marking this year’s International Day of the Girl child around the digital generation. Children of today are the digital generation, not only can they access the digital world and data, they are more skilful in their use of digital platforms. However, there are inequalities between girls and boys in terms of gaining access to digital devices.”
On her part, the Project Officer, COVID Impact on Girl Child Education, Women’s Right Advancement and Protection Alternative, Josephine Giwa, stated that the delay in the implementation of the Child Rights Act in 11 states was due to cultural and religious beliefs contrary to the stipulations in the act.
She added that the leaders of faith and culture in those states were the custodians of the practices, noting that they were also key players in moving for change and the adoption of the act.
Giwa said, “The Child Rights Act has not been adopted in 11 states mostly in the northern region where the majority practise Islam. This is no surprise as several matters speak to the cultural and religious discrepancies with details of the act. The Supreme Council for Sharia alongside many northern legislation characterised the act as ‘anti-culture and anti-religion.’
She also stated that one of the contentious issues of linking adulthood to puberty instead of the legally defined age 18, signifying maturity, set many girls up for early marriage.
She said, “This makes girls from the ages of 10 vulnerable to early marriages and pregnancies which further affect their education, health and overall development.”
On this year’s International Day of the Girl Child, Giwa advised the government to take on the herculean task of “aligning religious and cultural belief with federal laws” as well as ensure the “conformity of state laws with the Child Rights Act and the African Children’s Charter.”
She added, “People are their own strongest drivers of change. Girls, parents, caregivers, boys, community and education leaders must understand the rights of every girl in society and continue to amplify their voices in seeking development. In making decisions and policies that affect every Nigerian child, especially girls, the interest and protection of the child must remain the first and only priority.”
Also, the Country Vice President and National President, International Federation of Women Lawyers, Nigeria, Rhoda Tyoden, stated that for any nation to grow, the development of the girl child was vital.
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She noted that the girl child was human and her rights were human too but she had been discriminated against despite the provisions of the law.
Tyoden also identified cultural and religious beliefs including education, as factors that had hindered some states mostly from the North from adopting the law, noting that their definition of maturity of the girl child contradicted that of the CRA.
She said, “The CRA is a comprehensive law that protects the child including the girl child. However, one of the basic reasons why this law has yet to be adopted in some of the states mostly in the North is religion and culture. One of the major provisions of the law which the states have kicked against is the age limit of a girl before she marries. The Child Rights Law defines a child as anybody below the age of 18. In some of the states, they believe that a girl should be married when she is mature. But what is the yardstick for determining whether a girl child is mature or not? Most of them will tell you that when she starts menstruating, but some children started menstruating at the age of nine and 10.”
She urged states that had yet to domesticate the CRA to do so to fulfil their obligations to children in their states.
On her part, the Chief Executive Officer, Women Radio 91.7, Toun Okewale Sonaiya, stated that the implementation of the CRA was important for the safety of children.
She said, “For a better Nigeria, men should be deliberate in protecting every girl they come in contact with, in the mosque, church, school, home, workplace and social gathering. Domesticating the Child Rights Act in each state is a good place to start from while implementation is the key to safeguarding children. Indeed every Nigerian child should access quality basic education.”