Girl-child: Zonta Int’l calls for stricter laws against early marriage, harmful practices

WHAT is it like being a girl in the 21st century?

Given the explosion in civilisation and advances in science and technology, one would imagine we should now live in a world where the girl-child is free to be who she is — a girl, a child, with ample and equal opportunities to grow, thrive, dream, explore her potentials, make an impact in her world. One would expect a world where all forms of violence, including trafficking, sexual and other types of exploitation against girls and women in the public and private spheres, have since been obliterated. It should be a world where harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriages hold no sway; a world where female genital mutilation is a savage practice of the far away past. The girl-child would be free to access education to whatever level she so desires and is empowered for full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life. A world where all forms of discrimination against all girls and women everywhere are a thing of the past.

While these may seem like noble expectations, the facts show that the 21st century girl’s reality lies in stark contrast. Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 around the globe. According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2016, in Nigeria, 43 per cent of girls are married off before their 18th birthday. Although the Child Rights Act, which was passed in 2003, sets the age of marriage at 18 years old, only 23 of Nigeria’s 36 states have taken concrete steps to implement the minimum age of marriage. The implication is an end to educational attainment as parents of such girls see marriage as a viable alternative to schooling. Isolated, often with their freedom curtailed, such girls frequently feel disempowered and are deprived of their fundamental rights to education, health and safety. Although Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was outlawed in 2015 in Nigeria, we are still in gradual steps in erasing the stigma of having had the highest absolute number of cases of FGM in the world. UNICEF recently published figures that showed that girls between the ages of five and 14 spend 40 per cent more time doing unpaid housework and collecting water than boys —a trend that most usually continues into adulthood. In conflict-torn North Eastern Nigeria, the girl child is victim of abduction, trafficking, brutal death, sexual molestation, forced suicide bombing, forced and early marriage, and forms a huge percentage of the 1.4 million children displaced in the area. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, she also belongs to the 134 children estimated to die daily from malnutrition in the area.

With the grim realities the girl-child faces, in 2011, a United Nations resolution established 11 October as the International Day of the Girl Child (IDGC), a day designated for promoting the rights of girls and addressing the unique challenges they face. With this in mind, the theme for this year’s International Day of the Girl, Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress: What Counts for Girls, focused on harnessing the data required to ensure programs, policies and services effectively respond to the specific needs of the 1.1 billion girls worldwide. As a result, all hands have been called on to be on deck to deal with these issues that have become a global threat to the girl-child.

Pioneering the drive in Nigeria is Zonta International, a global organization of professionals empowering women worldwide through service and advocacy. Speaking on this year’s International Day of the Girl, the president, Zonta Club of Ibadan II, Dr Iyabo Bassir while reiterating the organisation’s commitment to the plight of the girl –child said, “We at Zonta International are concerned about basic issues of the girl-child like education. It is a fundamental human right but it is being denied to many children especially girls. Nigeria has the unenviable reputation of having the highest number of out-of-school children in the world.

“Some other limiting issues in the circumstance of the girl-child are early marriage, school dropout, limited educational opportunities, stepping down the education of the girl in favour of the boy, violence, not having a safe environment for the girl even in school. As a result of early marriage, one in four girls doesn’t complete basic education in Africa. In Zonta, we are particular about early marriage and one of our international projects presently is in addressing this issue of early marriage. In partnership with the UN, we are focussing on how to push marriage a bit further so that the girl-child can develop skills, talents, vocations and attain education.

“We are also concerned about the safety and security of the girl-child in the light of what happened in Chibok community. Much as people may want to believe the Chibok girls issue is politicised, I believe it is a matter of our humanity and should not be treated with levity. One just has to imagine the ramifications of the issue and how far-reaching the effects are on the child, her parents and the society at large. Something really has to be done to restore trust in the system and we are calling on the government to do more to better the plight of the girl-child.”

While government involvement in bettering the lot of the girl-child may seem commendable, there is the call to address fundamental issues bordering on the plight of the girl child. Dr Bassir pointed out that “there is an issue with the Child Welfare Act because if we go by the definition of that Act, a girl-child is a child under the age of 14 years and yet the law provides that children under the age of 16 are supposed to be in school. So, there should be a revision of how the girl-child is defined within our own laws. In Nigeria, we have the necessary legal framework, but implementation is an issue. We need more involvement from the private sector, concerned groups, NGOs and private citizens who can act even if it’s at a limited level. When we have a network and alliance of people working together, then more can be achieved.”

Beyond the contribution of the government is the need for cultural re-orientation as cultural inhibitions contribute to the girl-child being left vulnerable. In a society that discriminates against a child reporting abuse by her parents, it becomes difficult for the child to expose abuse at home. Advocates however, posit that with adequate awareness, the public might be moved to see this in a new light as abuse, whether physical or sexual, can lead to poor self-image and poor academic performance which the girl-child should be shielded from.

As is said, charity begins at home. Therefore the buck for the safety and protection stops with mothers. According to Mrs Peju  Nwuga, President-elect of Zonta Club, Ibadan, I, “the onus of protecting the girl-child lies in the home, especially in the hands of mothers. It is imperative that they understand their children. There are so many areas of taboo in our culture and it is believed that you can’t talk to a child about some topics, for instance, sex. But this is wrong. As a child approaches puberty, talks should begin. Many mothers don’t communicate with their children, especially their daughters. Sex discussions are usually in codes and abrupt; this is ridiculous and does not help the child. This is not restricted to the girl-child only; fathers should also be able to talk with their sons about sex. We need to find a way of addressing these issues in our culture.

“Because children reach puberty earlier nowadays, the sex/puberty talk should not be delayed. Today, we hear of infants also being abused. This is also the responsibility of the mother to protect her infant, especially her daughters. Mothers should not leave their children unattended; they should not leave their girls in the care of a male person —be it father, uncle, male neighbours; they should not take house-helps of the opposite sex; they should also not send their girl-child to hawk as she is exposed to all sorts of danger.

“There has to be a re-orientation about the rights of the girl-child. It is unfortunate that there are no gender equality courses in our universities. In fact, it should be a compulsory course at the undergraduate level.

“We need to put a stop on traditions that are harmful to the girl-child regardless of how many generations before had practiced it. Female Genital Mutilation is one of such practices; child trafficking is another. It has even gotten to more devastating levels where the girls are not only trafficked for prostitution but for organ harvesting.”

In line with the UN’s IDGC theme for the year, it is therefore imperative that more data be gathered so the girl-child is not left behind. Dr Bassir stated, “there are glaring gaps in data and knowledge about the situation of young girls. Nobody collects data about them, except for those in school where we have enrolment data and performance data. For those that are not in school, there is no data whatsoever about them. As a result, plans cannot be made for this group of girls. The emphasis for this year is on collecting data to help us set up better plans to help the girl-child so as to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Presently, in Nigeria, we have challenges with data collection and archiving, so to meet this year’s international goal for the girl child would require thinking outside the box. Citizens can make reports.  They can carry out surveys within their environment and upload these to the internet. It is a fact that government possibly does not have enough money to do these surveys, but if individuals and groups agree, we can work together to collect these data.”