On a sunny November afternoon in 2023, a group of women crammed into a classroom at a primary school in Kaduna South. Later, a bus filled with volunteers, a photographer and some members of the Participatory Communication for Gender Development (PAGED) Initiative hurtled into the remote part of Malali in Kaduna, North West Nigeria.
Some girls and women are unable to attend school in the community for reasons ranging from the lack of funding to early marriage, which exposes them to childbirth at a young age. But seated in this classroom before projected images of a documentary would stir up a desire for learning that has, for some, remained buried.
Titled ‘Unseen’, the film begins with a flash quote by a former president of the United States of America, Barack Obama – “No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.”
Released in 2021 by PAGED Initiative, it features interviews with Fulani women in Kulumi, a community in the Idu area of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. One of them, Khadija Usman, 20, who is married with a daughter, has never been in the four walls of a classroom. Presently, there are other members of her family who go to school, she explained, but they are all boys.
“To be honest, going to school is important. When people are talking, some presume you are ignorant or uneducated. And they think it is due to lack of education, which is true,” she said.
“Sometimes you come across some things that are simple, but it is hard for you because you are not educated and you don’t understand it. If I had gone to school, I would have been seen differently. If I were educated, I would always have one or two things to hold on to. But I didn’t go to school, so I am completely idle at home, doing nothing. That is a very serious problem.”
Khadija added that although she might have lost the opportunity, she would like her children to receive formal education. “If I get the chance to go back to school, I don’t feel it would be as useful as when I was younger. I want my daughter to go to school because I feel she would be able to help me and the society in general.”
Another local, Fatima Salisu, 25, had a brief taste of school before she dropped out. “There were some issues,” she said simply. But unlike Khadija, Fatima is eager for an opportunity to actively learn again even after birthing seven children.
She then switched to a topic that bothers her: the fact that women in her community carry their pregnancy to term without visiting a hospital. “It is our lack of exposure that brought all that. If we were educated, how would someone be pregnant for nine months and not go to the hospital right until they give birth, like the ancient people? We are now like them, since we haven’t stopped that tradition.”
If she had her way, Fatima pointed out, her daughter would mature before she gets married. “I don’t want her to live a married life the way I lived without knowing anything in the world or being educated. I don’t know anything.”
Fatima is optimistic that a community school in a place like Kulumi would be of great help to the people.
A much older member of the community, Sarfiya Ardo, sums up the community’s challenges as the lack of schools, hospitals and shelter. Then, she gave an instance that opened her eyes to how much the lack of education has relegated her people to the background.
Once, a small group of people came to Kulumi and carried out measurements. Then, they put up signposts without explaining what they were doing to the residents.
“It is our lack of education that brought this,” Sarfiya said. “We were quietly looking at them. We only heard them saying this is where they will work. They never said anything to us and they didn’t give us anything. We were just looking at them. We don’t have anywhere else to stay, not to talk of our cows. And it is all because we are not educated. Assuming from the onset our parents had done us the favour of educating us, or the ones before us, it would have been a different thing.”
According to the Education Policy and Data Centre, more than 50 per cent of young women between the ages of 15 and 24 in many states in northern Nigeria have not experienced formal education.
After watching the documentary, Muhibat Tanimu, 28, was most struck by Sarfiya’s account. “If the women had an education, they would know their rights and how to respond,” she told HumAngle. But because they were ignorant about their rights, they simply watched while strangers took measurements and made life-changing decisions in their neighbourhood.
Muhibat has always recognised the value of education, even right from childhood.
“I love education. I love learning. This is what my father wanted for me until he died two weeks before I was to write the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). This was what held my education back. Now I have been married for about 10 years and that dream of learning has not died,” the mother of four said. Currently, three of her children are in private schools and finance is a big problem.
The film, however, triggered her resolve to return to school after a prolonged break. She wants to go back to write the WASSCE and then study a health-related course. But, she said, “things have not been going my way”.
Muhibat works at an Islamic centre, where she gets paid ₦12,000 ($14) per month. Her husband is a rickshaw taxi driver. This makes the meagre resources between them fall short of meeting their family’s needs, let alone her schooling. But now she is determined to remain positive. She learnt from a private school that registration for the senior school certificate examination costs ₦34,000. This would be a huge sacrifice to make, but she is willing to go the extra mile.
Madina Lawal, a primary school teacher, was also in that classroom where the documentary was shown. Three out of her four children are at what she considers a watershed in their educational pursuit. They have all written WASSCE, but the chances of them furthering to the tertiary level already look slim, she told HumAngle.
All of her children are female, and there is already a suitor rush for them. Her eldest, who applied for Medicine at Kaduna State University (KASU), has been proposed to. “But she said that is not her priority. Her dream is to become a medical doctor.”
A 2021 report by Save the Children revealed that 78 per cent of girls in Nigeria’s northern region are married before the age of 18.
“There is a clear and strong link between Child Early Forced Marriage (CEFM) prevalence and endemic poverty, poor education outcomes, school dropout rates, a high rate of out-of-school children, and poor access to basic social, economic and healthcare services,” the humanitarian group noted.
“Despite the Compulsory Free and Universal Basic Education Act of 2004, lack of access to quality, free, safe, uninterrupted and inclusive education for girls remains a big driver of child marriage.”
Madina is in a dire situation. Her husband lost his job in 2020 and she earns a meagre ₦20,000 ($23) monthly. “Now she is awaiting the result,” she said about her daughter. “I’m hoping and praying because we have nothing to support her if she gains admission.”
Last year, Kaduna’s governor, Uba Sani, lowered the state university’s fee from ₦150,000 to ₦105,000, a development that is meant to help parents meet the needs of their children, but his still looks impossible to Madina, who earns below the minimum wage.
Several parents narrated stories similar to those of Muhibat and Madina. But one thing was glaring after they watched the documentary – they were willing to take the necessary steps to ensure that their children and even, in some cases, they themselves have an education.
Men were also ushered into the room for the film show when the women finished. After two interactive sessions, the parents made it clear that if the government met certain needs, it would encourage formal learning in the community. Nehemiah Ishaya, the head teacher of the community school, Government Basic Education School Malali, summed up these to include school feeding, which would motivate children to attend classes, and the provision of writing materials because most of the parents are poor.
“Access to schools because some of the learners are far from the school. The government should provide hospitals and potable water.”
Ishaya also complained that the schools lacked enough furniture, classrooms, toilets, laboratories, and libraries. He pointed out that the capacity of toilets is not proportional to the number of learners and this sometimes discourages girls from attending school.
“The standard of school toilets should be the standard that learners use at home. This is because the children come from various homes,” he explained.
The Kaduna State Education Quality Assurance Policy released in 2019 reported that 75 per cent of schools evaluated were overcrowded. Some also lacked facilities such as laboratories, libraries, toilets, and potable drinking water.
Ishaya recalled an incident that reflects why some parents do not feel motivated to send their children to school. Once, a boy was in need of immediate medical attention and the school took him to a hospital. But the nearest facility refused to attend to him because they thought he would not survive.
“We had to transport the child to a hospital in Badarawa,” he narrated. “There was another time we had to contribute between myself and other staff to raise money and treat a learner in the hospital.”
Ishaya insisted that if the government works on providing sufficient healthcare and meets the concerns raised by parents, it would motivate them to enrol their children.
Filming and showcasing documentaries is one of PAGED Initiative’s powerful tools for triggering positive social change, particularly regarding gender dynamics.
Project Director Ummi Bukar pointed out that the project aims to break barriers to girls’ education and build advocates within the communities instead of having them come from somewhere else.
A good example is Madina, who is currently mentoring a girl who has had to leave school due to early marriage.
“She is a full housewife and does nothing now. This bothers me a lot. She sometimes comes around the school premises to greet us and is still willing to return to school if only she could get the needed support,” she said.
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