Paint Me Not Red
I was an inquisitive child. I was always trying to figure out the reasons behind things. One day as I stood looking over my teacher’s shoulder into the class register, I noticed that the names of the male pupils were written first, at the top in blue ink while below, the girls’ names were written in red. I did not so much mind the positioning of the names but why red? Red ink was what the teacher used to record failures in our report cards. Did that also mean all girls were failures? I was disturbed and I asked.
“Mrs A. why do you write the names of girls in red?” She had looked at me strangely for a moment and slowly an angry look had settled on her face – “Go to your seat. You ask too many questions.” She had snapped.
In Nigeria, the elite, rich and learned families do not usually hesitate to send their girls to school since they have the resources to fund their education. However, even within this privileged class, some still hold a kind of restraint over their daughters. For instance, their female child may wish to study engineering but would be dissuaded by her parents. They would say, “try something more feminine.”
With the poor in rural areas, education for the girl-child is a burden. The girls are reared like fattened cows and "sold" - given out in marriage as soon as they reach puberty. In the Northern area of Nigeria, child-marriage is a common phenomenon and not just among the poor. There was a shameful incident of a renowned politician who married a thirteen year old girl.
During the one-year National Youth Service observed by all higher institution graduates, I witnessed first-hand, the limitation of the girl-child in regard to her access to education. I was deployed to a village, to teach in their secondary school. The school was under-funded and the students lacked important study materials. They had few teachers and most of the students could barely read. Therefore, it was only natural that I reacted to their general lack at first without any special consideration for gender bias. But after spending some months in the school, I noticed that there were very few female students in my classes. I discussed this with some other corpers* and we decided to do something about it.
We went to one of the native teachers who took us to the village head. The aged man seemed amused as he looked at all five of us; three ladies and two men. Then he said something in their native language which the teacher translated to us – “Are these beautiful ladies married?” When the reply was given in the negative, the man shook his head and looked at us pitifully, “What a shame, they are already too old.”
We told the village head that education was important for the girl-child and assured him that what we taught them in school was of benefit. After much deliberation, the village head agreed to talk to the families in the community. In the following weeks, we had more female students in our classes. However, this was only a pyrrhic victory – none of the female students were allowed to further their education past the secondary school level.
Before I left the village, one of the girls shared her dream of becoming a nurse in the future. She had plans to leave for the city to avoid being married off. She had been saving money from the kunu drink she sold on market days. The fire in her eyes stirred something deep inside me. In that young girl, Mariamu, I could see the start of the end – an end to female exclusion from the right to education.
In third world countries, economic constraints will continue to hinder girls from gaining access to education. Girls like Mariamu have the will but lack the means. There is the need to create more non-governmental bodies that cater for the needs of the girl-child especially in countries where the government has failed to provide for the people. As individuals we can make our contribution towards this bid – I did not have much money to help those girls in Tumu village but I taught them wholeheartedly. Their earnest desire to learn and their smiles of gratitude were rewards enough. Also, the mass media especially the Television can be used to confront cultural barriers which inhibit the girl-child's access to education. One of such examples is a soap opera which used to run on television in Nigeria titled, I Need to Know – it enlightened girls on the value of education, sex education and self worth.
Girls must transform the World!
*Corpers – the term used for graduates serving under the National Youth Service Corps