Since 2012 when it first took place, October 11 every year is set aside as the International Day of the Girl Child. Under the theme, ‘My Voice, Our Equal Future,’ the 2020 edition focused on such demands of girls as living free from gender-based violence, harmful practices and HIV and AIDS; learning new skills towards the futures they choose and leading as a generation of activists accelerating social change.
Also, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the World Conference on Women in 1995. The Beijing Declaration happens to be the most comprehensive agenda for advancing women and girls’ rights. The Platform for Action aims, among others, to eliminate or eradicate all forms of discrimination, violence and negative cultural practices against girls.
Worldwide, the statistics are not salutary. About one in four girls aged 15 to 19 years is either unemployed or out of school globally compared to one in 10 boys of the same age. About 435 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day by 2021. COVID-19 has worsened the situation as it has pushed 47 million women into poverty. During the lockdown occasioned by COVID-19 pandemic, many women suffered gang rape, other sexual violence, child marriages and even death.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 12 million girls are married before age 18 each year. Noting that one in five girls has experienced sexual violence globally, the WHO estimates that in Eastern and Southern Africa, nearly 80 per cent of new HIV infections among adolescents are among girls.
In Nigeria, the girl child suffers discrimination as well. Many of them are married off early even when they are not ready for that. Unfortunately, child marriage still exists in some parts of the country but it is more prevalent in the north. Little wonder, such diseases as the Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) is prevalent in that part of the country.
As the British High Commissioner in Nigeria, Catriona Laing, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Representative in Nigeria, Peter Hawkins, put it recently, “there is more to the future of these young girls than marriage. We know that educating girls is one of the most important ways we can empower them, by helping develop their ambition and learn new skills to achieve the futures they choose.”
In an article entitled, ‘Raising Girls’ Ambition Through Education, a Better Future for Nigeria’, Catriona and Hawkins observed that economic barriers and socio-cultural norms and practices like early marriage limited girls’ opportunities and impacted their completion of school in Nigeria. Sadly, they added that one in five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria and more than half of this number are girls. This is more prevalent in northern Nigeria.
In some parts of southern Nigeria, boys are more regarded than girls. In some family circles in the South East, the females are not allowed to partake in the sharing of their father’s property. Recently, the Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling, abolished this type of discrimination. According to the UN, at least 60 per cent of countries still discriminate against girls’ rights of inheritance.
Some cultures, especially in Africa, still practise female genital mutilation otherwise called female circumcision. This is despite strident campaigns against such practices.
Government has a big role to play if the lot of the girl child must be improved upon. There must be favourable policies that will ameliorate their plight. In the first place, all socio-cultural practices that hinder the progress of the girl child should be done away with. Her education and health should also be prioritised by the government.
It has been established that when given the opportunity, the girl child can excel even better than boys. Two years ago, five girls from Regina Pacis Girls Secondary School in Onitsha, Anambra State, won the technovation contest in the United States. They beat contestants from such countries as the US, Spain, Mexico, China, Turkey, Egypt, and Uzbekistan.
Girls are also known to have emerged tops in the West African School Certificate Exams and the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Exam (UTME). This year, a girl, Maduafokwa Egoagwuagwu Agnes, scored 365 out of 400 to emerge the best candidate in the university matriculation examination. In 2018, WAEC awarded three girls – Isabelle Gelegu, Favour Ngozi Etuonuma and Adenike Temitope Adedara – overall best students in Nigeria. These girls came first, second and third respectively in the National Distinction/Merit Award 2017. In 2019, Miss Ugboaja Chizobam Stephany emerged the youngest best candidate recorded by WAEC as she scored A1 in all the nine subjects she took. Really, there is nothing a boy does that a girl cannot do. All she needs to blossom is to be given a chance.