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The Many Roadblocks To Girls’ Education In Borno

Although basic education is free in this northeastern Nigerian state, a variety of levies, hindrances to transportation, and the people's traditional beliefs relegate girls like Zarah and Hadiza to the background. 

Zarah Adamu, 19, made it to her final year in Junior Secondary School, only to watch her dream of becoming an architect crumble right before her eyes. 

“Poverty is the major reason I dropped out,” she told HumAngle.

Zarah, the third of seven children, had, fortunately, scaled through to JSS 3 at Shehu Sanda Kyarimi Junior Secondary School. It was a joy then to attend school with her siblings in the London Ciki community of Jere, North East Nigeria. All these, despite the fact that her mother was a struggling widow. She earned a monthly income of ₦10,000 [about $13] working as a nanny in a private nursery school.

This privilege would not last as long as Zarah hoped.  

Dropping out

In 2022, Zarah’s education came to an abrupt halt after she wrote the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) in JSS 3. There was a fresh demand for textbooks, exercise books, and a new uniform as she progressed to the secondary level. This was when the cruel choice between the family’s sustenance and her educational pursuit had to be made.  

But, apart from the money needed to meet Zarah’s immediate school needs, there were other concerns. Shehu Sanda Kyarimi School was at a location called Custom, an hour’s trek from her home. So she was usually late and missed some major class activities. Transportation to school was hardly an option because her mother could not afford it. “Going by tricycle costs at least ₦300, which I cannot afford,” she said.

This was not all. There was the burden of other costs that became insurmountable obstacles. They included Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) levies, examination fees, and report card levies, totalling ₦2,000 [$3] for each term. There are three terms in one academic year.

Zarah added: “I am also not attending any Islamiyya School. I was previously enrolled in Abu Fadhima here in London Ciki before dropping out in May 2022 because of school fees debt. We paid ₦3000 per term. We were very steady in attending until we could no longer afford to pay.” 

Compared to other girls her age, Zarah has been fortunate. She was just in JSS 2 when two of her friends were married off. She still holds on to her dream of becoming an architect. When she is not applying make-up on customers or sewing, she sketches houses in her exercise book.

“Most girls desire to be doctors, nurses, or lawyers. I want to be different,” she said.

As a way of contributing to her family’s meagre income, Zarah works at becoming a professional make-up artist and tailor. “I do make-up for birthday celebrants, brides, and their friends with the little make-up kit I have. I also sew clothes using our neighbour’s sewing machine.”

The numbers

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reported that one in every five out-of-school children across the world is found in Nigeria, with 10.5 million children aged 5-14 not attending school — 47.3 per cent of whom are girls. Borno alone accounts for about 1.8 million out-of-school children, attributed to factors such as the Boko Haram insurgency, poverty, and cultural barriers. Also, more than 1.9 million children have been affected by the 14-year-long insurgency in North East Nigeria.

The UN agency has noted that children in Borno are “among the most conflict-affected and educationally disadvantaged in the world”. 

“Since 2009, over 1,400 schools have been destroyed, and 2,295 teachers killed across the North East in the protracted conflict. Attacks by armed groups on education and school facilities, the influx of internally displaced families into metropolitan cities, and population growth have also stretched existing school structures to the limit, creating challenges of access, retention, and school completion,” it said in a 2021 report.

To address this issue, the Borno State Government, in collaboration with the World Bank, established the Adolescent Girls Initiative for Learning and Empowerment (AGILE), Better Education Service Delivery for All (BESDA), and Mega schools across the state. 

Similarly, the government partnered with the Malala Foundation to boost girls’ education. According to Governor Babagana Zulum, about 500,000 children, with over 50 per cent of them girls, were enrolled in primary schools.

However, despite these efforts, there are still numerous out-of-school girl children like Zarah in Borno, often found in displacement camps and on the streets as beggars or hawkers.

Because she’s female

Unlike Zarah, 15-year-old Hadiza Muhammed Auwal lost the chance to get an education mainly because she is a girl.  

Coming from a polygamous home where her father has three wives puts her at a clear disadvantage. Hadiza is the tenth among 19 children. All the girls, 12 in number, are relegated to tsangaya (informal) Islamic learning while the boys enjoy formal education. This is simply because her father believes education for girls is not important.

Hadiza Muhammed Auwal (right) with a friend hawking snacks. Photo: Al’amin Umar/HumAngle.

In Hadiza’s family, even the boys do not benefit from further studies after secondary school.

“The boys mostly venture into trading in other states after completing junior secondary school or, at most, senior secondary school three,” she said. 

Once, Hadiza and two of her siblings attempted to enrol in Modu Sunoma Primary School, a government-run institution where they live in London Ciki. “We were asked to come with our parents and a registration fee of ₦5,000. We have not returned ever since,” Hadiza revealed.

To support their parents, Hadiza and her siblings hawk snacks at busy places. She makes up to ₦3,000 [about $4] a day. Yet, this does not still give her a chance at sponsorship by her parents. But if she could take matters into her own hands, she would be in school at the moment, she told HumAngle. “I understand the importance of education, and I desire to become a doctor.”

In Hadiza’s family, only two of her sisters were fortunate enough to attend school up to JSS 2. Unfortunately, they were married off at that stage and their education stopped. 

Some of Hadiza’s friends are still in school. She admitted that this makes her envious, especially when they are dressed in their uniforms. But then, having such friends around also comes with some benefits. “On weekends, the four of them tutor us, sharing with us what they have learned in school.”

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