11th December 2019
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In 2016, I was working on a household survey that collects data on literacy and numeracy skills of children. Since it was household based, we had to visit homes. Meeting people in their homes reveals intimate insights into how they live their everyday lives. Usually, in rural and hard to reach communities, people want to tell you their stories with the hope that you would do something about it. I came across a household that shook the foundations of my belief system.

In this particular household, there was a widow, her daughter and four children. Her daughter got recently divorced. The house was dirty and neglected. The poverty was so vivid that a dog lying down could hardly move or breathe because it was starving. It was basically skin and bones. As at the time I got there, they hadn’t had anything to eat. Assessing the children on their literacy and numeracy skill was just a formality as it was clear that they had never been to school.

As an education advocate, my solution to gender equality was usually “let’s educate girls”. However, coming across this case, to be honest, made me lost for words. I really couldn’t come up with a solution for this family. As I went on with the research, I realised that this family’s story was neither peculiar nor unique. It resonated in almost every household where there was no man present. In some parts of Nigeria, girls are not sent to school and are not also permitted to work for socio-cultural and religious reasons. Their duty is to stay at home, bear children and take care of the family. What then is the solution?

As a matter of urgency, this family needed food, clothing, shelter and other very basic amenities both in the short and long term. Going to school is obviously out of the question. I would have said learning a skill, but of what use will it be when they can’t work with it? How do you empower such women to, in the very least, survive. I used to scorn at states governments in the northern part of Nigeria who organise mass weddings for widows. After my experience, honestly speaking, I no longer do. The odds against women in such societies are stacked against them. They are not educated, they cannot work and are subject to easy divorce from selfish husbands who also refuse to take responsibility for the children.

Read also: women shouldn’t have to choose between careers and higher education

As we celebrate International Women’s day, let’s ponder on cases such as this. I want us to ask very difficult questions. The first step I recommend is to talk about it especially in development settings – let’s make the invisible visible. How can we empower women in very traditional societies who are already neglected? Do we leave them behind? How do you think the government can begin to tackle such cases especially in low income societies where funds are not readily available for social welfare? And how do we help women? Marriage, learning a skill, or education? Let’s talk!

Ides Ofune

Ides Ofune is currently a PhD Student at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on civil society and accountability in improving the quality of education. She is the founder of Desert Bloom Initiative and editor of Desert Bloom Advisory. Ides is very passionate about education and creating an inclusive society. She speaks French and English fluently. She can be reached at info@desertbloomadvisory.com

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