Lifeline for Out-of-School Girls: Alumna Brings Education to Vulnerable Nigerians

The Sun (Lagos, Nigeria)

In Africa, there is a common saying that ‘Women’s Education Ends in Kitchen’ (WEEK). But Nkechi Ogbodo, the founder of a New York-based group, Kechie’s Project, would shout from the rooftop that depriving the girl-child the opportunity of formal education is a rape of womanhood.

Her vigorous advocacy for the education of vulnerable Nigerian girls brought her to Lagos recently, where she took the solitary path to Makoko slum to bring education to the doorstep of out-of-school girls.

Ogbodo, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Lehman College and Masters in International Relations from City College of the City University of New York, USA, expressed concern about the high population of vulnerable girls in Nigeria, often with no access to formal education. She said the gift of education to these neglected girls would go a long way in rebuilding the wobbling family structure that has left the entire society in distress.

Her worries were heightened by the recent report from the African Health, Human and Social Development Information Service, which revealed that eight northern states have the worst girl-child education indices in Nigeria. In Kebbi, Sokoto, Bauchi, Jigawa, Yobe, Zamfara, Katsina, and Gombe states, one finds the highest percentage of females aged between 15 and 24 years, who cannot read or write.

Similar report by the UNICEF confirmed the growing population of illiterate women in Nigeria. According to UNICEF, an estimated 40 per cent 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 enrollment rates in recent years, it is estimated that millions of children of primary school age are still not in school.

Bridging the gap in girl-child education 

The Governor of Niger State, Dr Muazu Babangida Aliyu, admitted the challenges facing the girl-child education in the region. Speaking at a recent public presentation of a book on girl-child education in Northern Nigeria  written by Dr Asma’u Sani Maikudi, a management staff of Kaduna Polytechnic, Kaduna, the governor said some cultural practices in the region and the misinterpretation of religious tenets in relation to girl-child education contributed in worsening the situation.

Aliyu, who is also the chairman of Northern Governor’s Forum spoke further: “It was on that basis that the Northern Governors Forum (NGF) resolved that girl-child education should be the cornerstone of our various education transformation programmes.”

Recall that an estimated 10 million children in Nigeria are, at present, out of school, a situation that clearly undermines the prospects of Nigeria achieving “Education For All” by 2015. In the North particularly, the gender gap remains particularly wide and the proportion of girls to boys in school ranges from 1 girl to 2 boys to 1 to 3 in some states. Many young girls do not attend school because they are the breadwinners of their families as child labourers. In some cases, parents of these children cannot afford the associated costs of uniforms and textbooks. For others, the distance to the nearest school is a major hindrance.

“Even when children enroll in schools, many do not complete the primary cycle.  According to current data, 30% of pupils drop out of primary school and only 54% transit to Junior Secondary Schools. Reasons for this low completion rate include child labour, economic hardship and early marriage for girls,” the group said.

Denying the girl-child the opportunity of going to school is not limited to only states in the North or defined by religious traditions, as some people would think. Even states in Southern Nigeria like Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo, Abia and Anambra also had similar cases, though to a lesser degree. For instance, Ebonyi State has a very high percentage of girls that are not in secondary school, according to the report by African Health group.

Canvassing equal opportunity for the girl-child

Worried by these reports, Ogbodo organized an International Day of the Girl 2013 in Lagos, where distinguished panel discussion was held to awaken national consciousness on the education of Nigerian girls. The one-day programme, held at the La Cour Boutique Hotel 3, Ikoyi, had in attendance the Commissioner for Information, Delta State, Chike Ogeah, the representative of the Chairman, House Committee on Diaspora Affairs, Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the President of the Association of Nigerian Students in Diaspora, Olalekan Oshunkoya, Mrs. Aisha Ibrahim, the founder and President, WILAT Nigeria, Mrs. Ogochukwu Ugboka, School of Transport, Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos State, Nneamaka Anyanwu, a Cornel University graduate and former divisional basketball player from Oakland, United States, among others.

Ogbodo frowned at the unequal treatment of girls by most families, noting that boys always had an advantage in accessing education in the country. She attributed such unfair treatment of the female gender to cultural sentiment, religious factor and societal bias.

“I couldn’t think of any better thing to empower these girls except education. Education helped me. It gave me an opportunity and I believe that if that opportunity is given to any other girl, they can always achieve their full potentials,” she said.  Ogbodo told Education Review that Kechie’s Project was founded in 2010 to reverse this ugly trend and empower underprivileged girls, providing them with scholarship, educational resource and mentorship. According to her, the project presently provides direct financial support and resources to selected girls in Technical Secondary School, Obinagu Uwani Akpugo, Enugu State and Adekunle Anglican Primary School, Makoko, Lagos. Also, eight computers were donated to these two schools to encourage entrepreneurship education among students.

Apart from paying the yearly school fees of the girls they sponsor, Kechie’s Project donated desk top computers to Technical Secondary School, Obinagu Uwani, Akpugo, Nkanu West LGA, of Enugu State. Receiving the computers on behalf of the school, the principal, Mr. Solomom Chukwuemeka Uzoigwe, said the facility would boost learning in the area.

The group also donated a desktop computer to female students of Lagos State University (LASU), in Logistics and Transport Nigeria  (FESLAT).

Paying the prize

While counting her challenges, Ogbodo admitted that working for charity took a pound of flesh off her chunk. She voluntarily resigned her blossoming fashion career in America where she worked as a Brand Specialist for Elie Tahari and Piazza Sempione.

Despite her selfless service for the poor, she passed through fierce test of faith when her mum was kidnapped in 2011 in her village and detained for many weeks. To worsen the situation, his father was gravely ill when the incident happened.

The distraught lady had to rush back to her village, where fears over the safety of her mum and the degenerating state of her dad’s health left all her family members traumatized for weeks. Although her mum was found after six weeks, her joy was short-lived, as her dad passed away a month later.

In spite of these sad incidents, Ogbodo said her commitment to the mission of educating poor girls, often neglected as the dregs of the society, would never waver. “If my Mum could be this vulnerable, imagine the faith of other unseen girls and women without a voice. I founded Kechie’s Project out of the passion to make a difference, to touch lives, to reach out to those that are not privileged. My whole idea of starting this is the fact that somewhere along the line, there is somebody out there that needs our help. She could be somebody not related to us. Having lived in America for a long time, if there is anything I have learnt, it is the fact most of them have the big heart of doing charity, helping those that are not actually related to them,” she said.

Aside providing lifeline for Nigerian girls, Ogbodo said the group also provides cultural awareness programme and mentorship to students of Bread and Roses Multicultural Group, Harlem New York and organized class presentations on the culture of Nigeria to 3rd graders at PSQ1010, Forest Hills, Queens New York.

Also speaking, the Programme Director of the group, Nneamaka Anyanwu, expressed sadness with the poverty crushing many Nigerian families in the face of abundant natural resources. The 23-year-old graduate of Cornel University, who was born and bred in the United States, said her passion to empower poor Nigerian girls influenced her decision to join Kechie’s Project.

Lightning up the world of a girl-child

In an interview with Education Review, the Commissioner for Information, Delta State, Ogeah, who was a special guest at the event, described the 10 million Nigerian children, said to be out of school, at present, as ‘totally unacceptable.’ He cited the case of the Pakistan teenager, Malala, noting that her courageous advocacy for education has made a huge difference in the world.

“The truth is that the future belongs to the youths. If you take a demographic study of the country, I think the children below 20 constitute about 60 per cent of the population of the country. That will tell you that not only are they the future, but also the critical population segment in the country,” he said.

Ogeah attributed reasons for the high population of out-of-school children to social, economic and religious factors. He stressed the need to encourage children to go to school, especially the female ones as the only way the country can attain its full potentials.

The Commissioner said the Delta State government introduced a compulsory programme to get the children in school and urged other states to adopt such measure. “Go and look for these children. They are in their homes, hawking on the streets or forcefully married to some men. Send them to school. In Delta, these schools are free and obviously, what is needed is the force of law to back the programme. This can be done by the different state House of Assembly,” he said.

Ogeah said the Delta State government built new model schools of international standard and rehabilitated existing ones to increase children’s free access to quality education.

Although he argued that Delta State was not endemic in any way, he admitted that the economic downturn in the country compelled some parents to prevent their daughters from going to school. He said the government took a proactive step by making the education free for all children.

“You will never know the next child who would be the next Albert Einstein, or the next best pilot in the world or the next surgeon general. So, we must give an open field to all our children,” he said.

To avert the risk of stunted growth for the future generation, Ogeah called for the domestication of the Child Rights Act by all states of the federation. He praised the founder of Kechie’s Project for her passion to educate the underprivileged girls even as he called for more collaboration of people in the private sector with the government in addressing critical challenges facing the society.