ABUJA, Nigeria– Worldwide outrage toward Boko Haram has flared since the group’s kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls in April.
“As well as calling for decisive action to bring back our girls, we should push Nigeria to invest more in schools, take a tougher stance on student security and work harder at closing the gender gap in education,” said David Archer, the head of program development at ActionAid.
According to the organization A World at School, Nigeria is home to the largest population of out-of-school children, and the country accounts for 10.5 million of the 57 million out-of-school children in the world. These numbers are rising due to an increasingly young population: one-third of Nigeria’s population is between the ages of 10 and 24.
The state of education in Nigeria is even poorer for young women. In some areas, 34 percent of girls are not attending school, and less than two-thirds of women finish primary education. Some of the factors contributing to this gender disparity relate to religious beliefs against educating women.
Often, families choose to send their young women to work rather than school. For a variety of reasons, they may also choose to marry them off at a young age, and only 2 percent of married adolescent women are enrolled in school.
“Educating our young girls is the foundation for Nigeria’s growth and development,” said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s minister of finance.
To solve the issues surrounding Nigerian schools, organizations such as ActionAid are working to dispel negative beliefs that prevent children from obtaining an education, with a focus on aiding young women. In 2003, UNICEF and the Federal Ministry of Education launched an initiative called the Strategy for Acceleration of Girls’ Education in Nigeria, which resulted in the creation of the Girls Education Project in 2004.
The interventions introduced under GEP include raising national awareness of female education, creating child-friendly school principles, working with the government to revise current curricula, employing more female teachers and increasing collaboration between girls’ education programs and poverty alleviation programs.
Archer highlighted the need for Nigeria to increase funding for education. He said that ideally, about 6 percent of a government’s GDP and 20 percent of its budget should go toward education. Nigeria, now the largest African economy, only spends 1.5 percent of its GDP and 6 percent of its budget on education.
As a result, about half of students past the sixth grade cannot read, 80 percent of children lack textbooks for all their subjects, student to teacher ratios average 49-to-1 and roughly 40 percent of primary school teachers are not qualified. By spending more on schools, the Nigerian government can increase enrollment, improve the quality of education, purchase more textbooks and hire and train more teachers.
Quality education is essential to reducing the rate of poverty. However, one of the main challenges to providing education is conflict. UNESCO estimates that about half of the population of out-of-school children lives in conflict-affected areas. A total of 28 percent of Nigerian schools in a single state, Borno, have been destroyed by conflict, and violence has prevented 15,000 children from attending school.
As the anger toward Boko Haram spreads, it is important to remember that Nigeria is not the only place where students are met with violence. NBC recently shifted the spotlight to other countries where girls’ education is threatened. These include Afghanistan, Somalia, Mali, Syria and Pakistan, where women’s’ rights activist Malala Yousafzai was shot in 2009 on her school bus. The threat of such violence has prevented many women who desire education from seeking it out, and has scared families away from sending their daughters to school.
In Nigeria, programs have been introduced to establish social protection schemes and promote women’s health. In conjunction with the UK Department for International Development, the Nigerian government has also put in place a conditional cash transfer scheme that is dependent on girls’ enrollment in school. After the abduction of the schoolgirls, a new Safe Schools Initiative was established to ensure that all children can attend school without fear.
“We will do everything in our power to bring back our girls, and we will never be complacent when it comes to girls’ rights,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “We will not relax our efforts until every one of the 10.5 million girls and boys who are today denied education in Nigeria are given a chance to go to school in safety.”