The importance of the girl child at home and the society at large cannot be over-emphasised; for this reason, the United Nations, since 2012 has set aside the eleventh of October every year to commemorate, celebrate and bring to the fore issues affecting the girl child in a bid to proffering solutions to them.
This year was no exception as the day was marked with the theme “Empowering the Adolescent Girl And Vision 2030”. From the foregoing, who is actually the adolescent girl, and how could she be empowered in readiness for 2030 and what is empowerment by the way?.
This day set aside obviously focuses attention on gender inequality prevalent in most countries, particularly in sensitive and developmental areas such as education, medicare, nutrition, protection from discrimination, violence, child marriage, legal rights, female genital mutilation, VVF, prostitution, rape, etc.
It is assumed that every year, on this day, the girl child becomes the focal point and many of them living in penury or abject poverty hope to be eventually emancipated from every inhuman practice against them.
Who is the adolescent girl? Merman Webster dictionary defines adolescence as the period of life when a child develops from puberty to maturity. It can also be said to be the transitional period between puberty and adulthood in human development. Obviously, scholars have found it difficult to agree upon a precise definition of adolescence. But we can also call adolescence a fancy word for teenager within which the girl who is no longer a child is also not yet an adult. It is further broken into three main stages.
Stage one: early adolescence which falls between ages eleven (11) to fourteen (14), middle adolescence ages fifteen (15) through seventeen (17) and finally late adolescence ages eighteen (18) to twenty-one (21).
This is a period of great change for a girl, physically, psychologically, emotionally and developmentally. Another pertinent question arises, how do you empower the girl child in the face of challenges such as domestic violence, deprivation, discrimination, prostitution, rape, child marriage, physical abuse, lack, stigmatization, religious and traditional limitations and all other challenges that have become embedded in the society, religion, tradition, culture and even at home.
The girl child is viewed as succour for the survival of the rest members of the family.
She is the one to be given out in marriage to a man old enough to be her great-grand father, she is the one who goes to hawk and gets raped in the process, she is the one who is made to drop out of school, so that the brothers can go to school, she is the one whose educational achievements are not valued, because they supposedly end up in a ‘man’s kitchen’, she is the one who is given out to good Samaritans for greener pastures oversees only to be sold into prostitution, she is also the one who would suffer severe cases of Vesico Vaginal Fistula and is ostracized, she is the one who gets raped by uncles, cousins, neighbours, mentors, house helps. The girl child is exposed to so many dangers in our society and the questions are: how do we protect them? How do we empower them? How do we preserve their childhood, that they may value their adolescent and adulthood in the long run?
It is a good thing that the vision is for 2030, a very important millemum development goal. Even at that, it is long overdue, and we should have started this empowerment long before this time. Every child, male or female, deserves to be protected, but with the statistics available concerning abuse and the female child, we may have done a great deal, but are far from winning the battle. It is about time we began to look for alternative ways to get to the traditional root of some of these issues.
Child rape cases are on the rise in Nigeria, unfortunately, the legal prosecutions of such cases are not enough to douse the tide. Ninety one percent of such rape cases involve females while males account for just nine percent as at June, 2017. Surprisingly, some fathers who are supposed to be protectors of these females turn around to rape their daughters.
Child molestation is definitely on the increase because we almost daily get reports of mature men raping minors, in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory and Lagos. Although, it is still prevalent in Port Harcourt. The case of Ifeanyi Dike and his eight year old niece, stand out, he raped her and also took her life and mutilated her body parts for ritual.
What about child marriage or even forced marriages, in Nigeria, an estimated 43% of girls are married off before they are 18years of age and another 17% are married before they turn 15years of age. The odds just seem to be stacked against the girl child.
Fortunately, concerned organizations both international and national are up and doing by lending their voices, time and sometimes scarce resources to better the lot of the girl child. Internationally, the United Nations, UNICEF and all other such organizations are at the forefront of the crusade for the emancipation of the girl child, and locally in Port Harcourt, the International Federation of Female Lawyers, (FIDA), Medical Women Association, National Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ) are greatly creating awareness about the disadvantaged positions of the girl child. Worthy of note is the effort of the Doctors Without Border, who are not just helping rape victims, but also encouraging them not to be ashamed of stigmatization or afraid of seeking redress as well as providing medical and psychological help. The Doctors Without Border organisation is passionate about the girl child.
Rivers State fortunately has domesticated and passed laws that would protect not just the girl child but women who are abused and disadvantaged, though existing laws need to be enforced by the appropriate law enforcement agencies.
Education may not be the only way to empower the girl child, it is obviously the most important channel of empowerment.
There is still a whole lot to be done to reshape the view of the custodians of the girl child, as well as other members of the society. Take the abduction of the Chibok girls, after all efforts made, they are still being released in trickles and the Federal Government through the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osibanjo at the occasion of the celebration of the Girl Child Day had restated the resolve of the Federal Government to secure the release of the remaining Chibok girls. This is a clear message to the world and obviously perpetrators of such dastardly acts that such abductions would not be condoned in the country. It is not just abduction that should be fought to a standstill, every form of gender discrimination against the girl child should be fought with the same or even more intensity.
Mrs Elema Ejima, an educationist is of the opinion that functional policies should also be put in place to protect the girl child, as this would go a long way to empower them. This sentiment was re-echoed in the speech given by the former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar while receiving some girl child-friendly organizations. He called on both the federal and state governments to actively initiate policies that would empower the young girls of our great nation to grow up believing that they can do and become anything they imagine. He further reiterated that long gone were the days when women were confined only to the kitchen and bedroom. Also behind us are the days when girls were groomed only to become beautiful brides who would one day satisfy a man by keeping the house and kitchen, emphasising that Nigerian girls should be empowered to function in all spheres of human endeavour.
He described Nigerian population of young girls as an army of problem-solvers, waiting to be unleashed; if only they could be given equal access to quality education; bearing in mind that when we educate the girl child, we educate a family, educate a community and eventually end up educating a nation. Until we prioritise the education of the girl child, there will continue to be a limit on how far and how well we can develop as a nation in the 21st century.
There is, therefore, the need to re-orientate parents, communities, churches, a positive change of attitude towards the girl-child, particularly the attitude of parents, mothers, sisters and aunts. The battle against the girl child is waged more under the auspices of tradition, culture and religion, if we can conquer these, then, the emancipation and empowerment battle is half won, and then, changing the psyche of the girl child would be easier.
Fortunately for us in Rivers State, our government is one which is sensitive to the plight of not just the girl child but also the women, and has vowed to channel its resources towards fighting every form of discrimination against women and children.
With a few more well- meaning and well-targeted efforts at this malaise, God willing, would yield positive results and we can boast of a better society where all can access equal opportunity without being discriminated against.
Finally, all hands need be on deck to protect the vulnerable ones in the society especially the girl child.
By: Juliet Njiowhor.