Recently, I have been involved in advocacy in Ekiti State on strategies to keep girls in school. The trends in Girl-Child education across Africa at the moment indicate that enrolment levels are way up than where they were years ago, but a common problem is retention of girls in school. Even where education is free, if very poor families are faced with additional costs such as school uniforms, exercise books, and so on, it is more likely that it is the boys who will continue in school and not the girls. There is such a high rate of sexual exploitation of school girls that women’s rights activists have coined the term ‘Sexploitation’. Many unscrupulous adult males take advantage of the poverty and naivety of young girls and have what they claim to be ‘consensual sex’ with them for peanuts. Under the Nigerian Child Rights Law, there is no such thing as consensual sex with a minor under 18. Almost all States in Southern Nigeria and two States in Northern Nigeria have domesticated the Child Rights Law.
. The conventional practice is that pregnant female students are suspended or expelled and they have to not only leave school immediately their pregnancy is discovered, their chances of returning to school are limited if they do not have the required family support. Going around Ekiti State and seeing countless young girls in the rural areas pregnant breaks my heart. I have just finished a tour of the State which included handing out Maternity Delivery Packs to pregnant mothers at Primary Health Care Centers. A good number of the pregnant girls I handed packs over to could not have been more than fifteen-seventeen. It was painful to witness.
The Tribune of Monday November 12th ran an editorial with the title ‘The Proposed Law on Pregnant Students in Ekiti’. There are a number of things I found objectionable in the Editorial, but I will just mention three. First of all, the understanding of the Tribune Editorial team of the issues they seek to address is quite worrisome. According to the Tribune, ‘As it stands, the new law on pregnant girls in Ekiti State frowns on any sanction for erring young girls in the desperation to get them educated at all costs. When rules are broken in a society, it is imperative that sanctions be applied for the sake of that society……..except in the cases of rape, it is crucial for pregnant girls to be sanctioned by the authorities for the indiscretion of being involved in sexual relationships while in school’. There is no new law in Ekiti on this issue, not yet. What we have is the Ekiti State Child Rights Law of 2006, which stipulates that girls have a right to stay on in school after they have delivered their babies. An amendment to this law (which has not happened yet) will ensure that hundreds of girls do not fall through the cracks, instead of being suspended or expelled in the early months of pregnancy, they will be able to stay in school (if they choose to) till it is time to have their babies and return to school after. The Tribune Editorial talks about ‘sanctions for erring young girls’. Some of the girls in our communities are very poor, hungry and vulnerable. Lifting your skirt because you are hungry is not the same as lifting your skirt in the hope of a new phone. These are girls who struggle for survival, and the boys and men around them prey on their ignorance, desperation and naivety. Some of the girls don’t know anything about their bodies. I met with a young girl who was told that she would not get pregnant unless her predator had sex with her TEN times. He promised to not do ‘it’ more than twice. She got pregnant. The reference to ‘the indiscretion of being involved in sexual relationships while in school’ presupposes that school girls who get pregnant do so because they are ‘wayward’ or ‘immoral’.
Apart from the persistent occurrence of rape of young girls, the situations that land the girls in trouble are more to do with manipulation, coercion and ‘sexploitation’ than so-called ‘consensual sexual relationships’ with minors which is supposed to be illegal. I invite the Tribune Editorial Board to send a team of journalists round our rural communities across Nigeria to learn more about what is happening with poor girls and their families. We cannot sit in the comfort of large cities and allow our class privilege to blind us to the harsh realities of life for a vast number of people in our society.
My second problem with the Tribune Editorial, is their reference, more than once, to ‘the desperation to educate girls at all costs’, to the detriment of ‘moral education’. Without seeing any laws or policy documents from Ekiti State, without giving the authorities concerned the benefit of doubt with regards to necessary consultations, dialogue, sensitization and awareness raising on the various issues involved, the Tribune asserts that whatever the plan is, ’morality’ will be dealt a blow. I do not see how, in a country where all States share the burden of at least 10.5m children out of school, with 60% of them being girls, we should not all be desperate to educate our girls. I would like to assure The Tribune and others who might share their concerns that ‘morality’ will not become a casualty. All children need to be brought up knowing right from wrong and understanding consequences. However, there is also a need for empathy, compassion, and a capacity to deal with the realities we face in a changing world. We do not gain anything from shaming and stigmatizing pregnant teenagers. What we lose is a generation of Lawyers, Engineers, Doctors and Political Leaders who will end up selling fruit in the market or pepper on the roadside while the boys or men who impregnated them will move on to become all those things. Ensuring that girls get a sound, minimally interrupted education is not mutually exclusive from receiving a good moral grounding.
The third issue I have with the Tribune Editorial is one of Voice. I am entitled to an opinion. I have a right to use the platform I have to draw attention to things other people might not be able to. I have an obligation to draw on over thirty years of gender and development practice in various countries around Africa and the rest of the world. If what I say makes sense, the relevant authorities will take the required actions. If what I say does not make sense, I will be ignored. I am currently looking after two pregnant school girls. One was impregnated by her father. The other by a family friend. Both predators are currently standing trial. The girls are in school, they were given a choice to stay home and have their babies, but they begged that they wanted to stay in school. I have been engaged in advocacy with the education authorities and school principals about creating support systems for girls like that, and there are so many of them. A pregnant, thirteen year old girl who I cared for back in 2012 has now almost completed her tertiary education. She was preyed on by a number of men because she was a vulnerable orphan. Media houses such as the Tribune have such a vital role to play in exploring the root causes of many of the social problems we are currently grappling with. We need an open mind and a commitment to thinking with no box in mind. Things need to change, otherwise, children, particularly girls, will continue to suffer. This is an issue that is as simple as it is complex. The complexities can be untangled with the right policies and processes in place, with the political will to make a difference. The simplicity of it is that we should ALL be desperate to keep girls in school.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com