It’s a particularly humid April morning at the Government Girls Day Secondary School in Gusau, Zamfara State, where Mariam and her 63 other classmates sat with their eyes steadfastly glued to the blackboard as the teacher introduced a new topic in Chemistry to their young and inquisitive minds. It’s one of the marathon revision classes scheduled to prepare these young female scholars for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination starting in a few days. Even my presence and camera did little to break their rapt attention as they tried to absorb every term and equation on the board. The stakes are high.
Two years ago, thousands of miles from Gusau where Mariam and her friends are having their preparations, a larger group of female students were undergoing a similar exercise in a similar institution before tragedy struck. A tragedy that shook Nigeria to its very foundation and held the attention of the whole world for months after 276 female students were kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram from Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State. 57 of them managed to escape and since then the clamour for the release of the remaining 219 is still on.
The Chibok Girls, as they are now known, have proved to be a watershed in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram insurgency. Two years later, the North East communities ravaged by the war are springing to life again, even though the scars remain. A particularly worrying scar is the damage done to female education in Northern Nigeria. While there is no concrete data available yet to compare enrolment rates in primary and secondary schools before and after the tragic incident, it is incontrovertible that some damage was done to the psyche of parents who are desirous of sending their children to school, especially the female ones.
That unfortunately is a rather unpleasant complication to a grim reality. The global figure for out-of-school children is estimated at 121 million, 65 million being girls and over 80 percent of these girls live in Sub Saharan Africa. According to UNICEF, 40 percent of Nigerian children aged 6 -11 do not attend any primary school with the Northern region recording the lowest school attendance rate in the country, particularly for girls. Despite a significant increase in net enrolment rates in recent years, it is estimated that there are still 10 million out-of-school children in Nigeria, most of them girls. Of those fortunate enough to enrol, less than two-thirds complete primary school and even fewer girls finish secondary school.
Zamfara State has proved, in recent years, to be the silver lining in the cloud of female education in Northern Nigeria. The state has the highest enrolment figure for girls in primary and secondary school in the North West, and third highest in North West and North East combined. Indeed, Zamfara is the only state in the North West and North East to have more girls than boys in secondary school in the last two years. The number of girls who enrol in school and complete their education up to WAEC have also increased by 40% in the last three years. It doesn’t end there. In 5 out of 14 local government areas in Zamfara State, there are more girls than boys in both public and private primary schools. One of the very few states in Northern Nigeria with such record. These statistics are by no means accidental, but as a result of deliberate moves by and strategic policies of the current administration in Zamfara State led by the Governor, Abdulaziz Yari Abubakar.
Close to the Government Girls Day Secondary School is Government Girls Arabic Secondary School, a manifestation of the strategic purposefulness with which the current Zamfara State government has pursued improvements in girl child education in the state. Most parents do not send their children, especially girls, to school and prefer to send them to Qur’anic schools rather than formal schools. One of the secrets to getting parents to enrol their children in school, especially girls, and keeping them there in Zamfara is the provision of alternative school structures and curriculum, an example of which is the Arabic primary and secondary schools around the state. Government Girls Arabic Secondary School for instance sits close to Government Girls Day Secondary School. Both are girls only secondary education institutions with modern facilities and, but the former places more emphasis on Arabic Studies than the latter. The availability of such diverse options has made it possible for the state government to convince parents to send their girls to school without the fear of erosion of values they hold dear.
The School For Continuing Education for Women in Gusau is yet another example of the determination of the Zamfara State government in ensuring that girls are women in the state are trained, educated and empowered to compete with not just men, but their peers worldwide. Many children do not attend school because their labour is needed to either help at home or to bring additional income into the family. The burden of catering for the family is often placed upon the girl child at a young age, and as a result many of them are unable to complete their education, if they are lucky enough to start at all. This gap is what the Zamfara State government has managed to bridge through the provision of a specialised educational system to cater solely to young married women.
Government Girls College in Talata Mafara is the only female science school in Zamfara State and one of the few that exists in the North West. This is where the future female doctors and engineers from Zamfara are being trained. The school spots one of the best boarding facilities in Northern Nigeria and full housing facilities for staff. An ultra-modern laboratory and well stocked library are pointers to the seriousness with which the government takes the training of these crop of aspiring female scientists.
This story of girls in Zamfara who are defying all odds in the pursuit of education will not complete without mentioning the investments made by the current Governor of Zamfara State in this sector. Yari Abubakar stepped into the governance of Zamfara State and had to take far reaching steps in raising the standard of education in the state. More than 300 new blocks of classrooms were constructed and commissioned in the first year alone. A 7,000 capacity teachers training centre was built in Gusau fully equipped with ICT facilities to prepare teachers for the latest demand in teaching profession.
The current administration has gone to great lengths to take Zamfara out of the bottom rung of WAEC pass rates it was in 2012 by placing emphasis on the education of girls and women. The 2016 budget of the state and amount allocated to education shows the government is serious further reducing the number of out-of-school children in the state. Due to high poverty rates, most families cannot afford the associated costs of sending their children to school such as uniforms and textbooks. This hurdle has been removed by making education free in the state and added to that is the school feeding programme as an incentive to keep children in school and keep the properly nourished for the intellectual rigour of learning.
Just two months ago, an advisory committee set up for the revival of the education sector in Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara States, headed by former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Professor Attahiru Jega, submitted its report. Governor Yari who received the report on behalf of his colleagues, gave indications that nothing less than 35 percent of the annual budgets of the state will be allocated to education.
This is the kind of good news Mariam and all other girls in Zamfara State need to inspire them for the challenges ahead. If the pace of advancement in girl-child education in Zamfara State is maintained, the Yari Abubakar administration would have succeeded in providing a template for tackling one of the greatest obstacles to the development of the Northern region.