A few years ago Dr Udeme Nana who was the Head of Department of Mass Communication at the Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic, Ikot Osurua, had invited me to come and speak to his students of Mass Communication. It wasn’t a lecture he wanted but simply an interactive session which was tagged “A day with Ray Ekpu.” It was quite an interesting session that lasted for several hours because the students, at least the ones who spoke, seemed quite brilliant, more brilliant than we generally credit most students of tertiary institutions today with.
There isn’t much dispute about the fact that the standard of education has dipped. What may be in dispute is how far down it has plummeted. I enjoyed the session and I left with the definite impression that those students had a good chance after graduation, of doing well in the broad field of mass communication if what I observed that day was a good measuring rod.
Besides, I had known Dr Nana many years earlier when he was managing the information machinery of Governor Victor Attah. He was a dedicated newsman and a word wonk. Today, he has grown in stature in the teaching trade and as a book aficionado who has established a forum for book lovers called Uyo Book Club. A few years after my session with those students one of them who had received her Higher National Diploma called me to request that I read through a manuscript she had written which she would like published as a book.
Being in the writing business I know that writing is not easy. Reading is easier; it is a conversation, a rendezvous between you and the book, no third party, no intermediary. You may be a slow or fast reader, who cares? What you read is not shared with a third party. It is still simply between you and your book. It is at school that we first learn to read and as we go higher we then read to learn something more.
But writing is like holding a mirror, big or small, to society and its fruits or failings. What you give by writing is received either joyously or jeeringly by those who come in contact with that gift. As Anatole France said “word-carpentry is like any other kind of carpentry. You must join your sentences smoothly.” Words are the coins that add up to become the currency of sentences and sentences add up to form the currency of a complete write-up which may be an article, a letter, a memorandum or a book. I received the request to go through her manuscript with both excitement and curiosity. After going through the manuscript I was satisfied that it was publishable as a book.
I told her so. She then requested that I write a pre-publication comment on the manuscript. Here is what I wrote: “This collection of short stories deals with a cocktail of existential issues of contemporary Nigeria: child labour, child trafficking, sex slavery etc. It sends its arrows into the hearts of some anachronistic customs and traditions and male chauvinism. This first step by this young writer signposts a writing future that is pregnant with great promise.” That future is already here.
Sometime last year the young lady, Aniedi Etim, 26, called me to say that the Akwa Ibom State Ministry of Education has approved the book, her book, “Not a Safe place and other stories” as a Literature text book for use by students in junior secondary school two. Good writing is not the equivalent of low hanging fruits. And if a Ministry of Education approves it for use in schools that is evidential proof of its high quality. Ms Etim has brought home the bacon. She has a right to feel like she has just landed on the moon. Actually she has just landed on the moon, the moon of an exceptional achievement by a young lady who isn’t an English graduate, a young lady who didn’t graduate from Harvard, a young lady who didn’t lobby for such recognition.
She deserves a storm of applause considering that many young people today cannot string together a few correct sentences. She has a right to speak with chin-jutting pride. Her institution, a State Polytechnic, has a right, too, to crow about the excellence of its graduate which is a reflection of the institution’s quality. Etim’s passion for the girl-child seems to be deeper than the mere crafting of stories about the plight of the girl-child in Nigeria.
With the enthusiasm of a convert she has constituted herself into a girl-child activist. Since 2017, she has started a programme she calls “Pad a Girl;” she buys sanitary pads and donates them to secondary school girls in her community because she discovered that some girls from poor homes skip classes during their menstrual periods because they do not have money with which to buy sanitary pads.
Governments in Nigeria apparently do not know that this is a problem that is widespread, and which can be, and probably is, a disincentive to girl-child education. If they know, they probably don’t think it is serious enough to merit their attention. But it is not a problem to be treated dismissively considering the level of poverty in Nigeria and the many hurdles on the way of the girl-child’s education.
Last year the government of Scotland enacted a law to make period products such as sanitary pads available to girls and women who have need for them. That seems to be the first government in the world to do so. The girl-child is subjected to a lot of harassment and indignities in the world. For example, the global prevalence of child sexual abuse is estimated at 19.7% for females and 7.9% for males. Most offenders are people acquainted with the victims. They are either brothers, sisters, fathers, uncles, guardians, nannies, neighbours or teachers.
There is an incident that occurred on January 13 this year at a school in Ikono, Akwa Ibom State. A woman Dorathy Alphonsus told the story of what happened to her three-year old daughter at her school. When her daughter was brought back from school she put water in a bucket and wanted to bathe her. She says: “I removed her knickers: I saw blood. I removed her pant. I saw blood. The pant was torn. I shouted and asked her, what happened to you? She said it was aunty that chucked her. I checked her private part, a big wound is there.” The girl was restless, crying intermittently. From the doctor’s report the girl told her mother that a pen was forcefully inserted into her vagina by her class teacher. This is not an isolated case.
Every week there are several such cases that take place in various parts of the country which are reported in the media. Some are probably not reported. The other aspect of child abuse is child marriage. As of 2006, about 20% of school dropouts in Nigeria were attributed to child marriage. In Northern Nigeria about 50% of the girls are said to marry before age 15. Forty three percent of Nigerian girls are said to be married before their 18th birthday and 16% before age 15.
Nigeria is recorded as having the 11th highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. This early marriage occurs for a number of reasons such as poverty, inequality, lack of access to education, ignorance, greed, economic hardship and insurgency. Even though the Child Rights Act of 2003 puts the legal age for marriage at 18 for both men and women, this is obeyed more in the breach than observance. Some of the states have not yet adopted the Act and even those who have, breach the provisions. This, along with other factors, has contributed to the increase in the number of out of school children.
In the survey done by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics Multiple Indicators Charter (2016-17) the percentages of out of school children are high. Some of them are Bauchi 60.7%, Gombe 58%, Jigawa 44.7%, Oyo 25.5%, Ebonyi 21.4%, Akwa Ibom 16.1%, Cross River and Bayelsa 15.1% each, Delta 14.6% and Rivers 9.4%. With the COVID-19 pandemic in force these figures are likely to go up. We all have a major challenge, to rescue the girl child from continuing to be an endangered species.
In Akwa Ibom State where many poor parents make a preferential decision to use their girls either for farming or hawking or give them away in early marriage, there must be a conscious, renewed and intense energy by the political elite, elected and appointed, NGOs, women organisations, the First Lady and the Government to encourage girl child education.
The politicians can buy Ms Etim’s book and distribute to children in the schools in their constituencies. They will benefit immensely from it. The First Lady Dr Martha Udom Emmanuel who, I am told, is very passionate about the girl-child can show that the girl child matter matters to her. She should take interest in the passion exhibited by the girl-child activist, Etim. The excitement she shows means that she is a believer.
I also think that since the Ministry of Education has given recognition to Etim’s exertions by approving her book for use in schools, it will be quite beneficial to the cause of the girl-child if Governor Udom Emmanuel should make her a Girl-child Advocate because she has proved that she is a true believer and a self motivated doer.
What she is doing now at a small level as a private person she can be made to do it a bigger level with the full weight of the government behind her exertions. This will bring a blush of pleasure to the cheeks of all those who are fighting to better the lot of the girl child and to prevent her from becoming a nuisance now and a liability later.