Back to school: In Nigeria, changing the dire trends for child brides and girls with disabilities
04 August 2021
One day some years ago, Chief Egunu Williams had just returned home from his farm in the south of Nigeria when a man from a nearby community came asking for a loan.
The man needed money for treatment for his sick brother. Chief Egunu obliged him with a loan of 35,000 naira, or about US $90.
Months later, Chief Egunu visited the man to have his loan repaid, but instead was made an offer he was all too familiar with—to go away instead with 13-year-old Ann (not her real name), the daughter of the sick brother. Ann had been living with her uncle for many years.
Thinking this a fair offer, Chief Egunu agreed to marry Ann in exchange for the money he was owed. Several days later, little Ann was bundled off to her new home.
UNICEF reports that over 40 percent of girls in Nigeria are married before their 18th birthday. One reason for the high rate of child marriage is the longtime “Money Woman” tradition, in which a girl is betrothed to a man for a sum of money or to offset a loan.
“The tradition started from our forefathers,” says Chief Egunu, age 65. “My father, uncle, and brothers practiced it too.” He explains that there are social and even “spiritual” consequences to be paid by any girl or family that refuses such an arrangement.
“Ann was too young and married off against her will, she was unhappy,” Chief Egunu recalls now. Ann never went back to school, and instead joined her husband in farming. They had one child, then another.
Change of heart
Last year, another village chief attended some meetings to learn about the harms of child marriage. The meetings were organized by the EU/UN Spotlight Initiative and carried out by an NGO called the Centre for Leadership, Strategy & Development (Centre LSD). The other chief was one of over 1,000 people reached in 2020, and he became an advocate.
He spoke at length with Chief Egunu, telling him, “our children are not trained in school because men are saving money to marry ‘Money Women’ instead of training the children they already have.”
It was a painful lesson for Chief Egunu. After seven years of marriage, he returned Ann to her parents. At first, the parents feared that Chief Egunu would ask for a refund. But he did not.
“Money women” is still practiced by some, and while some survivors like Ann have been able to return home, many remain trapped. The Council of Chiefs now imposes fines to dissuade members of the community from taking part in the practice, and public education continues.
Such efforts are needed more than ever now. The COVID-19 pandemic has put as many as 10 million more girls at risk of child marriage worldwide, according to UNICEF. In a statement signed by Executive Director Henrietta Fore, the agency said, “Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out.”
As for Ann, she is now age 20 and happy to be back home and eager to return to school. Chief Egunu has promised to pay her school fees and support their two children.
Generations of poverty
The “Money Women” tradition helps lock many families into generations of poverty. But that’s not the only reason that families become poor and stay that way.
Consider the story of Ifuoma Oga. Born to a teenage mother who was unable to care for the girl, Ifuoma was sent off to another state to live with a relative. In time, she was enrolled in elementary school and was made to hawk peanuts to help support the family.
Out hawking peanuts one day on the street in third grade, she was struck by a car. Her leg had to be amputated. It took two years for her to learn to walk with crutches.
“The saddest part for me was not being able to continue with my education for a long time,” says Ifuoma, now in her 20s. “I lost touch with what the classroom looks like, I didn’t see my friends and I was always shy of going out as people often stare at me.” Recounting that time, she lowers her head in sorrow.
Ifuoma felt isolated. But, sadly, she is far from alone in her isolation. UNICEF reports that nearly 50 percent of the world’s 93 million children with disabilities are out of school. The out-of-school rate for children without disabilities is 13 percent.
Deprived of an education, children with disabilities are less likely to thrive as adults. Less likely to get work that fills their pockets or their hearts. Less likely to be considered in government policy or for care when, say, a pandemic hits. Invisible or shunned by the larger society.
This was the path Ifuoma felt herself to be on.
A change in fortune
One day last year, some people came to her community, going door to door to announce a new program called “Accelerated Second Chance Education,” sponsored by the EU/UN Spotlight Initiative. The project is dearly needed in Nigeria, where UNICEF reports that 1 in 5 of the world’s out-of-school children live. For example, over 10 million kids age 5-14 are not in school.
Ifuoma was welcomed into the program and she graduated in March 2021. She is one of over 6,000 people who’ve benefited from the education project in countries where it is carried out.
Among other subjects, Ifuoma studied English. When she’s with her friends, Ifuoma normally remains quiet, unsure of her ability to express herself in English. “I am battling with spellings, but surely I will improve,” she says. Between the English classes and courses on life skills and sexual and reproductive health and rights, she says, “I was able to gradually build my confidence.”
That confidence is an important lift for Ifuoma and others like her, who are so often seen as expendable or only as a source of income for the family. However, the problem is larger than any one family, who may be so poor as to feel they have little choice but to put a girl-child to work or sell her off in marriage.
The problem requires big changes in the systems of education, work, and social services.
Ifuoma wishes that the government could provide a better education for more children with disabilities, people like her who might be better off, were it not for a car accident or another bad turn of the wheel of fate.
Story written by Judith Owoicho and Concilia Ifeanyi, UN Nigeria. Editorial support by Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. For more information on the United Nations' work in Nigeria, please visit Nigeria.UN.org. To learn more about the results of our work in this area and beyond, please visit the UNSDG Chair Report on DCO.