A Bright Future for Northern Nigerian Schoolgirls?

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by Modupe Macaulay 

Photo: UN News Centre UNICEF/NYHQ2014-0710/Eseibo

The 15th of April 2014 marked a turning point in Nigerian politics with the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, northern Nigeria. The world awakened to the plight of young girls in developing nations pursuing education in societies blighted by terrorism and patriarchal belief systems. However, amidst the turmoil of unspeakable violence can local girls see any hope for the future? 

The official UN figures on girls’ education in northern Nigeria paint a bleak picture, with a staggering six million girls not in schooling out of the 10.5 million children already out of the education system; thus rendering Nigeria the top country in the world with the most children out of school. Many of these uneducated young girls hail from the predominantly Muslim and Hausa northern region of Nigeria.

The recent conflicts between the local Hausa population, and the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, have spread terror across northern Nigeria and contributed to lower female attendance in schools. As 18-year-old economics student at an all-girls Catholic school, Halima Rabiu, from the northern city of Kano told us, “The atmosphere of school has changed. Everyone is a lot more cautious. There are checkpoints going into school and constant bag searches. It’s really irritating. Lots of girls have left the school. They either went back to their state or moved somewhere else.”

Rabiu’s experience correlates with the findings of the NGO, A World at School, which, state that conflict in Nigeria has resulted in the destruction of 28% of schools in a particular state and that in certain regions, up to 34% of girls do not attend school.

For many girls in northern Nigeria, the stakes are just too high. In a country where security and education seem mutually exclusive many young girls are choosing their safety over the hopes of a brighter future as a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

Indeed, such reactions are understandable, as 16-year-old Khadija Musa accounts of the violence near school grounds, including frequent gunfire and the occasional bomb explosion.

But, does this bloodshed deter all young local girls from pursuing their dreams of entering into higher education? According to Rabiu, not at all, far from looking bleak, the future is in fact bright, “Given the right government, it will be better. Especially now, the government is all about empowering women. The government is doing a new scheme where they are putting more women in higher positions than men. So yeah, this gives me hope for girls’ education in the future.”

With the recent inauguration of Muhammadu Buhari as President of Nigeria, the mood of the country has taken a positive turn. During his inaugural speech, President Buhari promised change for all, speaking of his determination to defeat Boko Haram, which, he described as, “a mindless, godless group, who are as far away from Islam as one can think.” Since Buhari’s election as President in April of this year, we have already seen some progress in the fight against Boko Haram in North-Eastern Nigeria. At the end of April 2015, the Nigerian army confirmed it had rescued 200 girls and 93 women captured by Boko Haram in the northern Sambisa Forest. Moreover, in a New York Times’ Op-Ed Article, Buhari spoke of the need to boost education, in an attempt to counterbalance the appeal of Boko Haram. He further pledged to, “educate more young girls, ensuring they will grow up to be empowered through learning to play their full part as citizens of Nigeria and pull themselves up and out of poverty.”

But, will such optimistic pledges actually result in a concrete change for girls in northern Nigeria? A combination of military might and the resilience of the young girls risking their lives to attend school everyday is certainly a recipe for success, but, with a case as complex and multifaceted as Islamic extremism, perhaps only time will tell. In the meanwhile, we can only hope that the optimistic words of 18-year-old Halima Rabiu ring true – “It will get better. I have hope.”

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