If Only…President Tinubu Would Dream for Nigerian Adolescent Girls!

By Usie Charles Emmamuzou

We seem to underestimate the powers of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In one year since he assumed office, some of President Tinubu’s thoughts and dreams have overnight become law, fully implemented, and with far-reaching implications for all Nigerians all over the world. 

First, it was fuel subsidy, made law by a famous statement made by the president on his inauguration last year on 29 May, 2023. ‘Subsidy is gone’! he declared. And boom, it became law overnight. There have been others following such until the latest, generating so much heat across Nigerians home and abroad – ‘The National Anthem’. It started like a joke, and then overnight the National Assembly cleared all doubts with a record reading and passage of the bill to return to the old National Anthem. The perspectives, reactions, and interpretations of Nigerians are all over the media space, enough to last a generation. That is not the focus of the write-up.

President Tinubu confirmed that returning Nigeria to her old National Anthem has been a long-time ‘dream and priority’ for him. The speed and widespread adoption, translation into law, and full implementation of the ‘President’s Dream’, over a National Anthem, right or wrong, assures me therefore that the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, whoever that person is, is very powerful, and as long as that person pronounces a wish, dream, or thought, it could become law immediately and implemented with holy urgency. Fact!

There are many other things I wish the President would dream about; permit me to mention some.

If only President Tinubu could dream about ensuring and enforcing access to quality basic education for all adolescent girls in Nigeria. According to the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) Personnel Audit of 2021, Nigeria has an alarming 18.3 million children out of school. It is estimated that over 60 percent of these children are adolescent girls. These figures exclude children in senior secondary school, suggesting that the actual number of children could be much higher. Although the President Tinubu administration has launched the Education for Renewed Hope: Roadmap for the Nigerian Education Sector (2024–2027), this plan is yet to be aligned with the State Education Sector Plans (SESPs). As such, critical areas in the roadmap, such as out-of-school children, basic and senior secondary education, and girl-child education, are still a dream unrealised. Imagine that the federal and state lawmakers, other related ministries, and departments of government at the federal and state levels use the same speed of adopting the new anthem to bring this education plan to reality. Just imagine how many girls would breathe a sigh of relief and actually enjoy renewed hope.

If only President Tinubu could dream and prioritise access to quality and affordable health services for adolescent girls in Nigeria. According to a UNICEF report published on 07 March, 2023, ‘The number of adolescent girls and women aged 15–49 who are undernourished has soared from 5.6 million since 2018 to 7.3 million in 2021 in Nigeria, which is among the 12 hardest hit countries by the global food and nutrition crisis’.

The report further argues that in Nigeria, 55 percent of adolescent girls and women suffer from anaemia. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed that Nigeria has the fourth highest maternal death rate in the world. This is made worse by a lack of access to health facilities and trained birth attendants. A report published by the University of Hull reveals that mental health, violence, injury, and substance misuse were contributing factors to poor adolescent health in Nigeria. They went further to argue that over the course of her lifetime, the average Nigerian woman has a one in 22 chance of dying during childbirth in her lifetime, compared with a one in 4,900 chance for women in high-income countries such as the United Kingdom. We must recognise that the right to health is deeply rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 25 UDHR) and, as such, becomes central to the president’s agenda for improved human living in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s revised National Policy on Health and Development of Adolescents and Young People in Nigeria 2020-2024 confirms that “Investment in the health and development of adolescents and other young people shall be prioritised in the national agenda, recognising that such investments are critical to our country’s sustainable development and her potentials to achieve demographic dividends as well as yield benefits for the today’s young people, tomorrow’s adults, and the future generations”. 

It is not yet evident the speed at which the President’s agenda on health and priority is being implemented. Imagine that the President mandates the Parliament in Nigeria and all State Governors and critical Health related organs of Government in Nigeria to implement existing health commitments for Adolescent girls with the same speed and intensity the National Anthem was adopted and implemented. Just imagine the number of lives that will be saved from needless death.

If only President Tinubu could dream about ensuring sustainable access to menstrual pads and hygiene for all adolescent girls in Nigeria. For many girls in Nigeria, getting their period means putting their lives on hold. In some places, menstruation is associated with stigma, and girls feel embarrassed, often excluding themselves from school and other social activities during their periods. Lack of access to functional and segregated toilets, limited information on menstrual hygiene management, and limited availability of sanitary materials to manage menstruation make it more difficult for girls to manage their periods. It is estimated that many girls lose up to 50 days of academic classes due to period poverty situations, where they are unable to cope well with their period. This situation is made worse because sanitary pads are expensive and often inaccessible. Some girls resort to managing their periods with pieces of rags or paper, which are often unhygienic and uncomfortable. Others ask for permission to leave school premises, and many stay at home during their periods. 

According to a World Bank study, over 300 million women globally menstruate every day. An estimated 500 million do not have access to adequate facilities or products for managing their menstrual health. The inability to afford menstrual products causes one out of every ten girls in Africa to miss school while menstruating, which significantly impacts their education and may contribute to the dropout rates of girls from school. If there is one pressing need from girls to the President of Nigeria, it would be to make this part of their lives easier to manage by providing sustainable access to menstrual hygiene opportunities and services. There are several efforts, prototypes, approaches, and data-backed evidence to manage period poverty for adolescent girls in Nigeria, which President Tinubu can easily pick from and pronounce as a priority for girls, just like the pronouncement for the National Anthem. And when he does, if only the parliament and state organs who are closer to adolescent girls will immediately swing into action and make this a reality, millions of girls will wake up tomorrow with a renewed sense of hope for their future and well-being in Nigeria…if only!

If only President Tinubu could dream about ending all forms of gender-based violence targeted at adolescent girls in Nigeria. 

Gender-based violence (GBV) remains a scourge in Nigeria, where women and girls are more at the receiving end than their male counterparts. GBV remains an oppressive form of gender inequality, posing a fundamental barrier to the equal participation of women and men in social, economic, and political spheres. Three out of ten Nigerian women have experienced physical violence by age 15 and 28 percent of Nigerian women aged 25–29 have experienced some form of physical violence (NDHS 2013). 

According to the UNFPA, in Nigeria, 31 percent of women have experienced physical violence since age 15. In 2017, 14 percent of women experienced physical violence. Most of this violence is perpetrated by an intimate partner. Women continue to suffer all forms of degradation and deprivation in public and private spaces. In May 2015, then-President Goodluck Jonathan passed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) bill into law. But after six years of this law being passed, only 17 out of 36 states in Nigeria were recorded to have adopted the VAPP Act 2015. We recognise that by March 2023, an additional 19 states had adopted the VAPP or similar legislation. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Nigeria, while these achievements are indeed laudable, the number of cases of SGBV that are being prosecuted continues to be very few, with even fewer SGBV convictions secured; compared with the number of cases being reported. This situation persists because the SGBV response sector in Nigeria is grossly underfunded. Investigating and prosecuting agencies are not adequately funded to deliver on their mandate, and there are capacity and resource gaps in critical areas, ensuring that the pace of criminal justice administration remains comparatively slow for SGBV cases. More often than not, the survivors neither receive the justice nor the social support they deserve. And the perpetrators continue to commit these crimes with impunity. Almost ten years after a significant law that borders on the life and well-being of adolescent girls and women in Nigeria had been passed, implementation is still slow and, in many states, inactive. Imagine that ten years after you had signed this new law for the National Anthem, no action is being taken, how would you feel? Whatever emotions you would describe are a fraction of how adolescent girls and women feel, a sheer sense of total helplessness regarding the VAPP bill, which will prevent many women and girls from death and suffering. If only you could prioritise this as the President of Nigeria, maybe the parliament and state governors would give matching orders for speedy implementation, just like they have done for the National Anthem, because you prioritised it.

If only President Tinubu would dream of improving access to financial services for girls and young women to build secure living and contribute meaningfully to stable families. In 2023, a report written for the World Bank indicates that young women are among the most socially and economically excluded of all demographic segments due to both normative and structural barriers related to their gender and age. Across the world, the proportion of young women not in employment, education, or training is twice that of young men. The report went further to argue that, in developing economies, young women’s levels of financial inclusion reflect this broader exclusion: after rising steeply at fairly equal rates during the late teen years, young women’s and young men’s rates of access to formal financial services diverge markedly around the age of majority, producing a gender gap that persists across age- with sub-Saharan Africa, where Nigeria is prominent, account for worst conditions for young women, who are eight times more likely to be married off before the age of 18. According to the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) 2015, University of California, Irvine, adolescent girls in Nigeria have a 25 percent lower adoption rate of mobile-based digital financial services in comparison to older women. This shows that their needs and aspirations towards this innovation are poorly met. 

Mercy Corps, in a 2013 research on financial inclusion for adolescent girls, also argues that, without opportunities, girls are more vulnerable to becoming disillusioned, which can lead to risky behaviour and exploitation. The World Bank agrees and strengthens this argument by presenting almost two decades of research which indicates that, financial services can help young women develop the financial assets that are a key support in overcoming these conditions. 

There are many young girls in Nigeria who have lost hope of any form of life of dignity, simply because they do not have opportunities to earn a decent living. They are dependent on systems and arrangements that have become their source of abuse and persecution. Mr President, it is for such young girls that I imagine and ask you to dream about and make a pronouncement regarding access to cash and other economic opportunities targeting young girls, hoping that the parliament, financial and security agencies will translate it into action immediately, just as they have done with the National Anthem. 

If only President Tinubu would dream of a law that criminalises forced unions for adolescent girls.

According to Girls Not Brides, an International Agency, Child, Early, Forced Marriages and Unions (CEFMU) are both a cause and effect of gender inequality. In recent years, advocacy efforts have made significant strides in promoting the delay of marriage until the age of 18. However, more accelerated action is still needed as millions of girls are being married off before the age of 18 worldwide. In Nigeria, UNICEF, in a 2013 report, reveals that nearly one in three girls are married before the age of 18, and more than one in ten are married before the age of 15. In addition, another International Child’s Rights Agency – Save the Children – argues that CEFMU is a violation of human rights that disproportionately affects adolescent girls. Married girls are denied the freedom to make critical decisions about their own lives. They are disproportionately at risk of an early end to their education, social isolation, ongoing exposure to violence, and the risks of death and disability associated with adolescent pregnancy. 

This report published by Save the Children in 2021 went further to reveal that, a staggering 78 percent of girls in the northern region of Nigeria are married before the age of 18. This revelation is substantiated by the 2018 NDHS report, which had earlier revealed that almost a fifth (19 percent) of adolescent females (age 15–19 years) have begun childbearing, of which 14 percent already had a live birth while the remaining are pregnant with their first child. Married girls are denied the freedom to make critical decisions about their own lives. They are disproportionately at risk of an early end to their education, social isolation, ongoing exposure to violence, and the risks of death and disability associated with adolescent pregnancy, this is according to a World Bank report in 2023. Imagine the number of girls who would be saved from this life of torture and become active drivers and contributors to nation-building, if only President Tinubu would express his condemnation of forced unions for adolescent girls and mandate the parliament and related arms of government at the federal, state, and local levels to immediately take action. 

If only President Tinubu would dream of ensuring increased access of women and girls to key decision offices, and allow women to make decisions on issues that affect them most. 

In 2023, the World Economic Forum stated that it would take 130 years for the world in its current arrangement to achieve gender equality. Imagine that the President of Nigeria dreams of this colossal failure of humanity and declares it unacceptable in the country, thereby appointing women in key positions, calling on all political parties, starting with his own, as an example to promote and adopt gender transformative policies that will see more women emerge into critical political positions of power in Nigeria. 

For instance, in 2021, a bill proposing the establishment of workplace daycare facilities for nursing mothers underwent its second reading in Nigeria. Regrettably, progress on this bill has stalled since then. The absence of workplace childcare facilities remains a significant barrier to exclusive breastfeeding, mainly attributed to inadequate crèches or nurseries, and affecting women’s growth and access to leadership positions. Imagine a Nigeria where women become governors and use their security budget to ensure every girl child, and woman is protected from harm and abuse in all its forms, where women would ensure that laws like maternity leaves and contraceptives are predominantly made by women and enforced by women and men. Imagine how quickly such a law passed with the speed of light could do to our daughters and sisters, who would grow up with a sense of dignity and equality knowing that the world and this country are theirs as well and have all the opportunities to learn, decide, lead and thrive! Just imagine!

I am but an ordinary citizen and unknown to a large extent. This dream captured here is a summary of the aspirations of millions of Nigerian girls I stand with and for girls, my dearly beloved daughter being one of them. 

Usie Charles Emmamuzou, a proud Nigerian, a He4She champion, a feminist, a gender equality advocate, and Country Director of Plan International Nigeria, wrote from Abuja.


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