Education is your inheritance

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…………..Continued from last edition

 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. It turned out after the period that she could not read and write. I will not send my second daughter’. And she had a case because girls would complete primary school and they are still unable to read and write.”

CGE hosts after-school ‘Safe Spaces’, created to fill the gap in qualitative education by providing academic and life skills enrichment for girls currently enrolled in school. These programs provide targeted support to help ensure that girls remain in school and understand the value of education, especially during periods of transition, when girls are more at risk of dropping out.

It’s important to note that while one of the primary goals for CGE is to delay marriage, young girls who are already married are also in ‘Safe Spaces’, receiving such support as education and vocational training. Habiba explains: “We are targeting girls that were married early, between the ages of 14 and 17. These girls have dropped out of school or have never been to school before they were married off. Some of them have one, two or three babies.” There are currently over 4,000 in the Married Adolescent ‘Safe Space’ programme, many of whom have now enrolled their children in pre-school safe spaces. Habiba who had personally experienced the hardships of balancing children and education at her younger age, adds: “These girls are amazing. Consider the challenges they have with childbirth, child-rearing and the rest, and they still have that interest to want to rewrite their stories.”

Strategically, CGE is looking ahead, hoping to mitigate future risks to female education. Habiba explains: “We see the close relationship between climate change and girls’ education. Here, we are close to the Sahara. So, there is drought. Every girl, wherever she is, will plant a tree. That will help reduce erosion that is affecting most of the communities where we work. We believe that where there is good climate and food is surplus, education will be easily acquired. When the stomach is full, people would concentrate and read conscientiously. They would be able to pass examinations without problems. So, we believe that we are at risk of climate change, and every girl should know that, and see how she would be able to support this issue so that it will not affect the community drastically.”

For many girls in rural communities re-enrolling in formal school is not an option, often due to the great distance between home and school. For these girls CGE provides a variety of vocational opportunities, such as animal husbandry, micro-businesses, and phone and electronics. Aisha Bello Aminu explains. “For the vocational training the [vocational] expert is brought to the community. The girls are the ones who would select what type of business they want to do because they see the type of business that will prosper in their community. It’s not just what you think will work for them, because they know what they want.”

Abubakar is an expert in electrical engineering, partnering with CGE to train girls to construct and repair electronics. He shares: “First we were rejected by the community because they said, ‘how will a man teach the girls skills that are meant for men only?’ They did not know that the girls can also do it. But as time went on, they saw how we were progressing. Now we’re able to show them some parts of the electronics and how to fix them, how to repair, how to construct local lamps.” Habiba laughingly shares the story of one local father whose daughter was in the Electronics Vocational Training. Habiba begins: “The young daughter told her father, ‘If you can buy the wire to wire our house with electricity, I will do the wiring.’ And the father said, ‘What do you know of the work of men?’ The girl said she would do it. Then he said, ‘I will try you.’ He bought the wire for the wiring, and the girl called her friends who worked in the shop together with her that they should come and support her.” Eventually, to the amazement of the community, the daughter and her friends successfully wired her father’s house for electricity. The community quickly changed their mind, clamouring for their daughters to be included in the Vocational Training Project. Habiba concluded proudly, “The girls are breaking gender barriers to be able to make sure that they reach their potentials.”

For girls who can remain in school, CGE has built pipelines for vocations that require higher education. Through their Girls for Health program, CGE works with girls in senior secondary school, assisting them as they take their exams, mentoring and filling knowledge gaps as they prepare for work in the medical field. These girls will go on to become nurses, midwifes, doctors, and pharmacists. Similarly, CGE partners with the Nigerian government to assist girls who are interested in becoming educators, helping them prepare them for university, to graduate and fill the national teacher shortage.

Historically, the greatest challenge to the girl child’s education has been the  mis-education of the community she resides in. The old adage is that it takes a village to raise a child, and in many rural communities this is true, in that the perspective of the community dictates the way in which a child is raised and educated. Habiba explains: “The major challenges that we have was a misconception in some of the communities. They would say: “people are here to change our religion. You are here to change our culture.’” Education for girls is seen as a misuse of limited resources and viewed with distrust. Community leaders often fear that education is synonymous with westernization or will lead to the moral degradation of their children. Given these concerns, CGE began any work in a new community by meeting with leaders to build buy-in for ‘Safe Spaces’. Habiba shares: “Here in northern Nigeria, you cannot penetrate any community without working with the community leaders or religious leaders because people respect them and value them. They are the gatekeepers.”

Dr. Binta Asaba Mohammed, a chemistry professor and CGE board member, explains the approach they take to help allay some of these concerns. “When going to the community, most of our staff dress to suit the norms of those in the community. We respect their culture. We respect their religious leaders. We respect their community leaders. What we normally do is show the community and the religious leaders the importance of education in Islam, and that we teach them moral values that are in line with the Islamic religion. So, on that basis, they accept wholeheartedly because in Islam education is very vital.”

One such religious leader who has become an advocate for female education is Abdullahi. Roughly 40 of Abdullahi’s daughters and granddaughters have participated in CGE programming. He says: “I am proud of the education being impacted on the entire community. They are now well educated as a result of this school.” Abdullahi uses his influential position in the community to advocate for CGE. He explains, “I am used to organizing PTA meetings for parents in order to motivate them, which constitute the Chief Imams and Elders of the community at large. We draw their attention to the importance of education and its prioritization. They have now started believing.”

Local father Kabir has two daughters in CGE’s Girls for Health program. He says, “I am personally an Islamic oriented person, and my religion has emphasized the importance of education, especially what has to do with health. This made me give my 100% support.” He adds, “I would love for my girls to reach a level whereby our community, state and the whole country at large can benefit from them.” When asked what advice he would give to other parents, he says, “Since they are ladies, a time would come when they would get married which might be a hindrance for them in achieving their dream, so there should be a mutual agreement between the husband and fathers to let them continue studying even after marriage because of the importance of education. They should be given full support.” Because girls are educated within the community, community members have a front row seat to their growth and development.

Dr. Binta explains, “Now other members of the community want to emulate them. They’re happy with the girls, so they want their children to participate. Now they have seen that these girls are being empowered, they are being enlightened.”

Aisha Bello Aminu says, “Sometimes when men see changes in their wives, even in those that have two or three wives, they come to ‘Safe Spaces’ and meet the mentor to ask her to allow the other wives to attend. And sometimes some of them even come to our office to show their gratitude for the changes that they see in their wives.” Despite setbacks and challenges, CGE has seen success. In the areas in which they work, 82 percent of girls are now graduating from secondary school, up from just 4 percent when they first entered the community. And on average, a girls’ marriage in the region is delayed by 30 months. But perhaps most significantly are the changes in the girls themselves. Dr. Binta says, “These safe spaces have changed the narration of most of the girls.” She explains: “When we started mentoring at the grassroots, most of these girls were very shy. Now most of them want to finish schooling before getting married. And now they have a voice. They talk to their parents on what they want and what they don’t want.”

Dr. Binta describes watching the girls share stories of what their lives were like before and after becoming part of safe spaces: “Some even used to cry. They are very emotional when they listen to their stories, where they started from and where they have reached now. There’s progress. It has touched the lives of many, many, many people within Zaria, in Kaduna state, and even outside Kaduna state.”

Habiba is ever mindful of the magnitude of the problem. Always the advocate, she explains: “We are trying to see how we can work with governments to be able to implement the safe space model into the school calendar. So, it’s one of the subjects that they have to go through in the school. Every girl, wherever she is, will be able to have at least two years of safe space.” She paused, emphasizing, “We cannot do it alone. We need to work with others to do it.”

CGE has begun to train other educators and practitioners throughout the Sahel region in how to reach the most vulnerable girls, drawing on the successes of ‘Safe Spaces’. Habiba shares: “Our hope for the future is that the Centre for Girls’ Education will be a learning hub for everybody that wants to work with girls and to support girls to be who

they want to be.” Habiba smiles: “And our hope is that these girls will be the ones that will lead the organization in the very near future. When you talk, you won’t have talk to Habiba anymore. You will talk to one of the girls as the director of Centre for Girls Education.”

Today, Habiba has ten children, all of whom have graduated from university and heeded their mother’s advice to postpone marriage until after completing their schooling. Habiba is proud of the inheritance her mother left her and sees her work as a continuation. Habiba smiles: “Wherever my mother is now, I know that she is happy because her children are educated.”

Habiba’s story illustrates the unique possibility of education. It’s an investment in the future, a seed that’s been planted with the unlimited potential to spawn new growth. As one CGE mentor explained, “Educating your own child is like educating a whole nation.”

Every now and then the BitterSweet story mould breaks, never to be the same (in the best possible way). In this case we were prevented from travelling to Northern Nigeria in the summer months because of heightened volatility surrounding local elections. Our team was gutted, as were the staff and students of Centre for Girls’ Education, yet because of their determination and creativity we were able to collaborate even more deeply.

With Steve Jeter and Alfred Quartey’s ingenuity, we shipped 30 single-use cameras to the students along with shot-list guidance. With the educators’ help, the girls captured their worlds with a new lens and shared that generously with us here. I was stunned and moved to tears when I first saw the developed images, so impressed by the intimacy and honesty of the moments the girls captured and the captions they wrote. It is our honour and great privilege to publish their work and I want to thank Habiba and Maryam, particularly, for guiding the process so diligently and with such kindness.


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

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