Education is your inheritance

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When I first met Habiba, she was wearing a deep purple khimar. She was quick to smile, an infectious habit. She said: “For me, every girl is important. She just needs support and a little push, and she will be an amazing person that, maybe, people did not think she could be.”
Habiba Mohammed was raised in Zaria, a large city in the northern tip of Kaduna state of Nigeria. Kaduna has always been a predominantly Muslim state in northern Nigeria. The streets are crowded with girls, grouped like small flocks of brightly coloured birds, their khimars billowing behind them. Strains of the call to prayer reverberate through narrow alleyways. Passing traffic kicks up red dust. Zaria is home to Ahmadu Bello University, a research facility, and an influential institute of higher learning for the region.
It was in the shadow of this university that Habiba and her three siblings were brought up. Habiba’s father died when she was eleven, and so her mother was left to raise the children on her own. She earned an income to support the family all alone. Habiba’s mother was a teacher, before rising through the ranks to become a school principal.
“Education is your inheritance,” Habiba’s mother told her on more than one occasion. From an early age, Habiba’s mother instilled in her children the value of education, especially for her daughters. In Zaria this was unusual. Most of Habiba’s girlfriends were married off before they completed secondary school. But Habiba’s mother continued to stress the importance of education as a means of independence. And so Habiba and her siblings persevered in their studies.
Habiba married at 20 and found herself eight months pregnant as she took her university exams. It was not easy, but after five years and three children Habiba graduated from university with a degree in English Literature, an incredible success story in a state where only 48 percent of young women are literate due to the many obstacles they face.

“I am unlikely to be alone in owing my primary exposure to child brides in northern Nigeria to the Chibok kidnappings. In 2014 the world watched in horror as members of Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from the Chibok village school during the night of April 14. The rape, violence, and forced marriages of the kidnapped girls sparked a global outcry, launching the famous “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign as numerous organizations, individuals, and governments worked to recover the girls, with varying degrees of success.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility, saying that girls as young as nine are suitable for marriage, and the Chibok girls should have been married, and not been in school.
Boko Haram had been terrorizing northern Nigeria since 2009. The swaggering gang of young men with limited economic options pumped full of guns and extreme religious rhetoric struck fear throughout rural communities vulnerable to attack. Women in the region were often at risk of assault and forced marriages to Boko Haram militants. While communities decried the kidnapping of young girls, the belief that a girl’s best option for the future is an early marriage did not originate with Boko Haram. It’s an ideology that has deep roots in rural northern Nigeria. For many families living in extreme poverty marrying off a daughter, often referred to as a girl child, relieves some of the financial pressures they face, and can bring economic stability for the daughter that the family is otherwise unable to provide.
After the death of Abubakar Shekau, many Boko Haram militants joined other terrorist organizations, the majority becoming members of ISIS-West Africa. As ISIS and other militant groups strengthen, the threats of violence, banditry, abduction and rape continue to loom large in the rural areas of northern Nigeria.

While Nigeria has the highest GDP in Africa, much of its northern region remains in extreme poverty, with up to 70 percent of the families of at least six persons and at most 28 person living on less than $1.25 or N1,500 per day. According to Africa Check, “Poverty plays a central role in perpetuating child marriage. Poor countries and families often have few resources to support healthy alternatives for girls such as schooling. In such families, with very limited resources, child marriage is often seen as a way to provide for their daughter’s future.”

Research shows that due to cultural norms and the pressures of extreme poverty over half of all girls under 16 in northern Nigeria are married. These young girls are expected to give birth within the first year of marriage, often with devastating consequences. A baby born to a girl under 16, whose pelvis is not yet fully formed, is 60 percent more likely to die within the first year than a baby born to an 18-year-old. Children who survive are more likely to be malnourished and cognitively impaired due to a combination of birth complications and a lack of nutrition. Similarly, maternal death rates are also high, with Nigeria contributing to 2 percent of the global population, but 10 percent of all global maternal deaths.

However, when a girl child is educated, the statistics change drastically. According to some estimates, currently only four percent of females complete secondary school in northern Nigeria. According to the UN, if all women completed secondary education, mortality rates for children under five would decrease by 49 percent, and 64 percent fewer girls would enter into child marriages.

If all women completed only primary school there would be 66 percent less maternal deaths. Economic outcomes improve as well. For every additional year of schooling a girl child receives, her future income increases by almost 12 percent. Faced with these statistics, many northern Nigerians are advocating for increased female education.

In 2004, Nigeria passed the Universal Basic Education Act (UBE Act), which mandated all states to provide free, compulsory and quality education for preschool through junior secondary school, roughly the equivalent to middle school. Due in part to grassroots advocacy, the UBE Act was amended in 2017 to include all 12 years of schooling, significant in that it is typically right after junior secondary school that girls are most at risk of early marriage.

Similarly, in 2018 Kaduna state—one of the most influential states in northern Nigeria—created the Child Rights Act, which guarantees the provisions of the UBE Act in Kaduna and prevents marriage for those under the age of 18. However, there is a thereby bridging the large gap between what is in the books and what is actually taking place in hard-to-reach rural communities.
In 2007 the Centre for Girls’ Education, CGE was created as a joint initiative between the University of California in Berkley and the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria after research revealed that female education was the best way to combat high infant and maternal mortality rates in northern Nigeria. CGE was founded to provide quality education for girls in the region, delaying marriage and giving young girls time to mature physically, emotionally and intellectually before becoming wives and mothers.
In 2016, the leadership of CGE was handed over to Habiba Mohammed, a Zaria native and long-time educator and mentor. That same year she was named one of Malala Yousafzai’s International Girls’ Champion. She is currently one of the Malala Education Champions in Nigeria who partner for education reform and progress in female schooling. Habiba describes the vast swath of work that CGE is now involved in. “We provide safe spaces for girls in their schools or in their communities, where we mentor them on life skills, reproductive health information, gender-based violence prevention, climate change, adolescent nutrition, and other things that the adolescent girl needs to know before she moves into adulthood.”

Zainab, a current CGE beneficiary said: “We have learned a lot since coming to the Girls’ Centre for Education. They taught us so many things, including how to take care of our husbands and how to take care of our children. They taught us about self-respect and how to respect our elders, and our younger ones to respect us too. They showed us the importance of eating a well-balanced meal and how it will help build our body systems. They pointed out the disadvantages of not going to the hospital and the importance of giving birth with a health practitioner (midwife). They also taught us the importance of being self-employed. I have learnt about child spacing. I have gone for those pre-natal sessions and seen the importance because I gave birth with a health practitioner and the baby and I were given utmost care until the baby was fine. I was also lectured on the importance of child immunization, and I took my baby for vaccinations.”


Based in Zaria, the largest city in Kaduna state, the Centre for Girls’ Education is seen as an expert in the region, partnering with the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, the MacArthur Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Malala Fund, the OASIS Initiative, and many others, including local state governments throughout Nigeria. Through these partnerships CGE’s work has been able to expand, reaching seven states, and over 200,000 girls.
Despite its name, the Centre for Girls’ Education is not housed in a single, central location. Rather it’s a variety of programming, nodes in a vast network of educational supports embedded throughout rural villages and impoverished urban communities. Responsive to the community and the individual needs of each girl, CGE hosts programming based on age, education level, and marital status. The goals are the same—quality education, reproductive health, empowerment, and when possible, delayed marriage—with the formatting shifts based on the needs of the population.
While CGE has expanded to include student-led advocacy campaigns, preschool, and vocational training, the primary goal of CGE is to provide Safe Spaces for girls in rural communities, whether these girls are in school, have left school and want to re-enrol, or are unable to continue their education. It’s in these Safe Spaces that girls receive academic support, access resources, dialogue about challenges they face, and make decisions that impact their future. Led by mentors who speak Hausa—the lingua franca of the region—and are typically from similar communities, Safe Spaces empower girls to use their voice.
Team Lead and former mentor Aisha Bello Aminu described the reality of the risks girls face. “There is gender-based violence. There are some girls that will come and discuss it with the mentors because some of them are facing it. But from the knowledge that you’ve been given at the Safe Spaces, they know their rights, what is right and what is wrong.”


A large part of Safe Spaces is dedicated to reproductive health. These topics are sensitive, and CGE approaches them with respect and thoughtfulness. Typically, reproductive health is only introduced after trust has been built with mentors over a handful of months. Aisha Bello Aminu explained: “We invite a health worker to their space to discuss it with them. She’ll tell them she’s not imposing it on them. It’s their choice if they want to do it or not. Most girls during our baseline interview say that their first child died during the birth. After the intervention, they gave birth to healthier babies and they were spacing their babies and they were eating healthy too.”

One of the largest remaining challenges to school retention in the region is the lack of quality education. Even if a girl surmounts numerous obstacles and is enrolled in school, there is no guarantee that she would learn. Habiba explains: “What we see vividly is girls not learning in school. There was an interview that was conducted with a young mother of two girls. She sent the first girl to school and refused to send the second. She said: I sent my first girl to school for six years. She could not read and write. I will not send my second daughter. And she has a case because girls will complete primary school and they cannot read and write.”

The writer, Kate Schmidgall, is the Editor-in-Chief of Bitter-Sweet Monthly

…………..Continued in next edition

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