By Laure Beaufils
Today, on the International Day of the Girl Child, I will be announcing the results of a small competition I launched not long ago: I asked young women and girls aged 16 to 25 to post a one minute video setting out why the rights of girls matter, and what they would do about it if they were given the opportunity. Along with two colleagues, I will pick one “winner” who will be invited to “be the Deputy High Commissioner in Lagos for a day”.
I have received some comments on social media asking me why I am discriminating against men and boys, who may equally want such an opportunity.
And so here is my answer: this is a small, symbolic, gesture. A gesture that is intended to show that, despite all the talk of girl power, across the world, girls do not have the same opportunities as boys. That there are still informal rules of the game that often hold girls back, and that are often invisible. And that we need to do something about it. There is a case for proactive action.
This is not only the case in Nigeria. It is the case across the world. Each country faces its own challenges and difficulties and journey to equality and dignity.
You know better than I do what the challenges are in Nigeria: nationally, 43% of girls are married before the age of 18. Rape and sexual violence is recognised as a widespread and serious problem. Nigeria has the highest number of children out of school in the world – 10.5 million children. The majority are girls. Men dominate and control social, economic and political life.
All of this matters. The globally accepted evidence is that when girls are educated, healthy and empowered, families are healthier. According to UNESCO, 2.1 million children under the age of 5 were saved between 1990 and 2009 because of improvements in girls’ education. And closing the gap in the unmet need for family planning for the 225 million young women who want to delay or avoid pregnancy but aren’t using modern contraception would reduce maternal deaths by 67% and newborn deaths by 77%. Empowered girls are key to breaking the cycle of poverty for families around the world. Every additional year of school increases a girl’s eventual wages by an average of 12% – earnings she invests back into her family. Empowered, educated girls have healthier, better educated children and higher wages, helping to break the cycle of poverty.
But I am always uncomfortable with these arguments. Do we just invest in women in girls to deliver better health, education and economic outcomes for their families? Is it not, fundamentally, the right thing to do? Yes it is: irrespective of our culture, history, ethnic group and religion, it is the right thing to do. Discrimination has no place in the 21st century, no place in the Nigeria or the Britain that we want. Every child, every girl, has the right to go to school, stay safe from violence, access health services, fully participate in her community, and be the best that she can be.
And so I think it is right to dedicate a particular day, the International Day of the Girl Child, to highlight these inequalities, and to think about what we’re going to do about them during the rest of the year.
As the UK Government working in Nigeria and with Nigerians, we have put women and girls at the heart of our development programmes. Our Department for International Development (DFID) is working hard to step up efforts and put a stop to all forms of violence against women and girls, changing policies that improve the legal environment to secure women’s rights. DFID’s flagship programme, Voices for Change (V4C), addressed social attitudes and behaviours that discriminate against women and girls; built their skills and increased their chance of getting a job.
Through this programme, over 9,845 young women and 9,648 young men (aged 16 – 25 years) are taking action in relation to violence against girls and women. Over 2 million 16-25 year olds are demonstrating more positive attitudes in relation to women’s leadership. DFID’s livelihoods/poverty programmes have sought to improve women’s economic assets, increase women’s income and access to financial and productive resources. 1.4million women and girls have been helped to improve their incomes and have a say in how these are used. DFID’s education programmes have focused on building education systems at state level to improve access and learning in basic education. Specific results include: 1.3 million girls reached by improved teaching and girl-friendly learning environments. Through our health programmes, over 8 million children under 5, women and adolescent girls are benefiting from improved nutrition and over 2 million women and girls are now using modern methods of family planning.
The UK has also been working with International Alert in Maiduguri since October 2016 to provide support for the reintegration into their families and communities of girls who are survivors of sexual violence by Boko Haram.
Notwithstanding these achievements, addressing inequality and securing the rights of women and girls in Nigeria will require generational change. The main driver of change must be Nigerian decision makers and the Nigerian people who, together, hold the key to achieving equality across Nigeria.
So, what we can all do as individuals to make that reality happen? I am convinced that each and everyone of us has a role to play and can make a difference. Indeed, we have a moral responsibility to do so. We can speak out when we see sexism and injustices against girls – when girls are asked to do house work but not boys, when girls are not encouraged to study and excel in science, when girls’ appearances matter more than that of boys, when girls do not have the same access to property as their brothers, when girls do not control their ability to work and manage their income. And when we see discrimination, we can shout. We can make our politicians sit up and listen.
The talent resourcefulness and dreams of the girls I’ve met thus far in my 7 months in Nigeria know no bounds. These girls have star power. They can bring about meaningful change to their communities and Nigeria. Today, let us all recommit to protecting girls, empowering them and allowing them the dignity to be the best that they can be.
– Beaufils,UK Deputy High Commissioner. Lagos.