Michelle Obama is one woman who is both a breathing and beautiful proof of the potential of others. She is proof that it is never the destiny of women to be ‘mere domestic appendages.’ And she has not only been a distinctive First Lady with soaring approval rates till her exit, she is testimony that truly, using only the yardstick of merit, we can have a lady first. Michelle narrated, during the Democratic National Convention of 2012, a story about President Barack Obama’s grandmother which most women can relate to. In her spellbinding words:
“Barack’s grandmother started out as a secretary at a community bank, and she moved quickly up the ranks. But like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling. And for years, men no more qualified than she was – men she had actually trained – were promoted up the ladder ahead of her, earning more and more money while Barack’s family continued to scrape by. But day after day, she kept on waking up at dawn to catch the bus, arriving at work before anyone else, giving her best without complaint or regret. And she would often tell Barack, ‘so long as you kids do well Bar, that is all that really matters.’”
This narrative beautifully sums up the ugly reality of women. But as heartrending as it may be, we must not lose focus of the root cause of the many problems besieging the female gender. Behind every cry for equality and behind every case of gender-related crimes, we will find this hydra-headed monster dancing like an inflatable car wash balloon: the lack of equal access to education.
It is not bad if we condemn the existence of a glass ceiling for women in the workplace, but it is only a woman who has had a golden foundation that would worry about the ceiling. Without education laying the groundwork, other struggles for the betterment of the woman – and by extension the world – are bound to crumble like a pack of cards.
So, what exactly is the problem?
While Nigeria shares the same earth with countries like Canada, Chile and Iran which have more girls attending school than boys, she is still groping in the dark alley of educational inequality. And while the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides that every individual shall have the right to education, the condition of her female population has still not changed significantly since she ratified the document in 1990. Even the arguments of her Constitution, which guarantees the same right under sections 18(1) and 42(2), have proved insufficient in triggering needed change.
Here, girls are naturally disadvantaged as a result of the culture and financial incapability of the people. Till this day, many believe that the worth of the girl-child is limited to the parlour, kitchen and the “other room.” It is because of this we have the bulk of juvenile hawkers being girls who ought to be in school. And it is for this reason bride price, in some areas, is not within easy reach as girls have been reduced to auctionable commodities.
The problem also thrives upon oxygen from abject poverty. Many are so impoverished, yet proportionally blessed with offspring that they cannot afford to educate them all. They therefore resort to the scale of preference approach and opt to enrol only their male children in school.
But how large really is this sore, it might be asked. Quite so. According to the World Bank, the female adult literacy rate for the country is 59.4%, compared to 74.4% for males. And as stated by the Central Bank of Nigeria, the gender gap in literacy rates between boys and girls is 18.3% in favour of boys. The problem is even worse if we home in on the northern cut of the pie. For instance, studies have shown that as few as 20% of women in the North West and North East of the country are literate and have attended school. In the same region, the number of children out of school is particularly high and the proportion of girls to boys in school ranges from 1 girl to 2 boys and even 1 to 3 in some states.
And the way out?
It is true that the best way to kill an intrusive tree is not to fling the sharpest of blades at its radiant leaves, meddlesome branches or even the sturdy trunk. If you really want it dead, you must sink your hands into the soil and rid it right from its origin – the roots. Likewise in this instance, what we must first do is purify the thoughts of our people. We must reorient them. We must teach them that the female child is just as brilliant and beneficial as the male, and the fact that she lacks a y chromosome should never be the why for her similar lack of education. This can be done especially through campaigns taken to the grassroots, communicated with local dialects and fuelled both by government and Non-Governmental Organisations.
We also cannot overlook the place of finance for as the saying goes, no matter how willing its mind is, a twig does not become an iroko tree just by desiring. Fiscal policies have to be so structured that they play a music even the poor can dance to. Programmes such as grants, loans and scholarship schemes should be put in place, targeting especially the girl-child, so that no matter what stratum of the society’s ladder you are, nothing can stop you from getting a degree, except you yourself disagree.
The government of the day should borrow a leaf from these words of the 44th U.S. President: “We have an obligation and a responsibility to be investing in our students and our schools. We must make sure that people who have the grades, the desire and the will, but not the money, can still get the best education possible.”
Often times, most parents are scared of sending their female children to school in distant places and would rather keep them at home. Hence, the government should also ensure the creation of more schools which are accessible to all, particularly those in remote areas. The security of schools should be beefed up, with special focus on the North, to avert kidnapping and acts of terrorism. That way, parents worry less about distance, transportation costs and the safety of their young ones. Mechanised farming should also be encouraged, as well as welfare schemes, so that poor families do not have to depend on child labour for survival.
After putting all these and more in place, law enforcement agencies should be charged to seek out and sanction those who maliciously engage in child labour, depriving their young from a taste of the Pierian Spring. Guardians who refuse to send their wards to school should be challenged for it is only through a blend of carrot and stick that lasting progress can be made.
Once Nigeria puts the bale of educational imbalance behind her, she would have bid farewell to a number of other vices too. We will have less gender disparity at workplaces, less domestic violence, less child and maternal mortality rates, less poverty, less prostitution, less environmental degradation resulting from lower fertility rates and the list goes on. John Krout noted for instance in his work that one of the major contributors to the success of the Woman-Suffrage Movement and sexual equality in the United States was “the opening of the doors of institutions of higher learning” to women folk. No doubt, a future brimming with educated citizens, both male and female, is a future closer than ever to the Nigeria of our dreams.
During the Second World War between the Triple Entente and the Central Powers, the United States, which at the time maintained its position as a disinterested neutral, protested that British ships were interfering with shipments to other neutrals. In its response, Great Britain said its application of the doctrine of “continuous voyage” – which the U.S. itself had applied during its Civil War – was designed to stop shipments to neutral countries when it was clear that the ultimate destination was Germany.
If we draw from the wisdom in this doctrine and apply it to the question of girl education, we will realise that equality in education is even just the beginning. The girl child deserves to be given preference, academically, because the shipment of knowledge does not stop with her. It continuously voyages to her children, grandchildren and pupils. It percolates through her family to the larger society. And so we must cast our sight upon the bigger picture. If we educate a boy; we have educated just him. But once we venture towards the education of a girl, consequently we educate the nation.