Let me join the MC and Chairman in welcoming all of you to this very important event. I commend the author of this book Re-Thinking the Legal Framework for Rights of Women and Girl-Child in Nigeria for the obviously painstaking work put into writing the book. I deeply appreciate the selection of Titi for the honour of having the book dedicated to her. And I sincerely thank the organizers for inviting me.
When I got the invitation to this event I asked Titi why she would allow the organizers to schedule it during a period that I would be busy campaigning for the primaries of my party. (Some of you may have heard that I am trying to be President of Nigeria). She said the organizers themselves had wondered about the same but that she told them that the protection of the rights of girls and women is more important than all the political campaigns of all the aspirants put together; that they are dealing with an issue that affects women, i.e. 50% of the population, and that in any case she knows that it is an issue that I care about deeply and that I would make out time to come. She was right. I would not miss this occasion for anything.
But there are other equally important reasons why I had to attend. And it is not just for peace at my home; it is because the woman being honoured by this book is worth it. The honour is well-deserved; the work she started many years ago, in 1999, I think, has continued. It speaks of her commitment to the cause, her dedication to duty and her passion for women’s and children’s rights. That woman being honoured today is my lovely wife, Amina Titi Atiku.
Ever since we got married she has always looked beyond her immediate family to reach out and extend a helping hand to others. She did not recoil to the relative comfort of her own home but determined to help others. It is this concern for others that led her to set up Women Trafficking and Child labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF) to help address the serious matter of human trafficking, especially as it affects women and children. She initiated the first Private member’s bill and so to it that it was passed into law by the National Assembly. That law is the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act, 2003. It is that law that gave birth to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). Titi has remained resolute and focused on the cause.
I can also confirm that she is a great wife, wonderful mother, and great friend. She loves and cares about this country.
Ladies and gentlemen, there is no doubt that the rights of women and girls need to be protected and promoted. As a country we are currently not doing enough in that regard, not in educating them, not in promoting and caring for their health, not in dealing with crimes against them such as rape, not in protecting child labourers of which girls tend to be in the majority as house-helps, not in reducing their sexual exploitation and trafficking by pimps and other criminal elements in society.
WOTCLEF believes that every child has a right to life, to education, to leisure, to recreational activities and to develop mentally and emotionally, and to protection from any form of harm. Perhaps no greater harm can be done to a girl-child than denying her an education. And it is also a great harm to society. Educating girls is vital because girls who acquire education tend to become better mothers, have fewer, healthier children. Indeed, as UNICEF points out, every additional year of schooling reduces the probability of child mortality by five to ten percent. And if you look around your various communities you are likely to find that children whose mothers are educated tend to be educated themselves.
Figures from the United Nations, national reports and studies initiated by non-governmental organizations always show that girls, as a group, have lower literacy rates, received less health care, and are often more impoverished than boys. The UNESCO estimates that over 100 million girls in low and middle income countries cannot read a sentence.
A 2012 Gender in Nigeria Report placed Nigeria at 118 out of 134 countries in Gender Equality Index, a very poor and embarrassing record indeed. Put in simple English, it means we are not treating our women and girls well. And that’s not nice. Consider the following.
In Nigeria, about 38% of the female population lack formal education and only 4% have higher education against 25% and 7% for males. The northern part of Nigeria has the highest rate of illiteracy at 70%. Over 10 million Nigerian children are out of school and 60% of them are girls.
22% of Nigerian teenage female children have at least one unwanted pregnancy. And many Nigerian parents continue to marry off their girl-children prematurely, often before they have acquired education. Again this is more prevalent in the north than in the south of Nigeria.
And we know why parents often refuse to educate their girl-child. The reasons include poverty, ignorance and the prevailing culture of male dominance in the affairs of society. When faced with the choice of educating either a boy or a girl in view of limited resources, families often choose to educate the male. The, often misplaced, belief is that it is the boy who will be around to care for younger siblings and the parents in old age. The same poverty and ignorance encourage many parents to give out their girl-children in marriage without education and before they are matured enough to decide for themselves. If they know that their daughters, if educated, have a greater chance of living longer and healthier lives and raising healthier children, these parents would likely think twice before rushing them into marriage and making worse choices for these girl-children. If we improve our pre-natal and post-natal care and a primary health care generally which ensures a much higher infant survival rates, women will tend to have fewer children and, therefore, have better quality of lives for themselves and their children.
The growing insecurity in the country makes matters even worse for women and the girl-child. Almost on a daily basis we are inundated with reports of kidnappings, rape, and busted baby factories across the country. And we have the unconscionable abduction of hundreds of girls and women in north Eastern Nigeria by insurgents. This growing insecurity is not an excuse to neglect girls’ and women’s rights; it is the reason to do more to protect and promote those rights. In addition to being a right, educating the girl-child has many spinoff benefits for the family and society: reduced child marriage, improved child health, improved maternal health, improved literacy, education, and employment prospects. And improved education and employment will help reduce insecurity across the country.
It is clear that government alone cannot meet all of society’s challenges. That is why all of us, in our various capacities, have to step up, as Titi has, and contribute in the many ways that we can in order to create a better society. I must, however, stress that efforts by such private not-for profit and non-governmental organizations as WOTCLEF while important, cannot substitute for concerted government action to protect citizens, especially the most vulnerable. A society’s health is measured by the extent to which its most vulnerable are cared for. A government’s most basic responsibility is the security of citizens and the promotion of their welfare.
To help protect and promote the rights of women and girl-children, I propose
· Free compulsory basic education for all children under 18 to be funded by state and local governments with federal support;
· Public health efforts to reduce maternal mortality and child mortality rates;
· The institution of welfare system by state governments (with federal support) that provides some support for the aged and needy;
· Improved security for schools in areas vulnerable to attack;
· Public enlightenment through the mass media and community visitations by volunteers, on the benefits of girl-child education;
· Promotion of human rights education as part of civics classes in schools;
· Encouragement of women to report and speak out about sexual violence and other violations and provision of safeguards to protect them when they do;
· Government should work collaboratively with NGOs to ensure the enforcement of the Child Rights Act;
· All forms of child abuse such as child labour, child marriage and child abandonment should be punishable by law.
My dear friends, as we celebrate the author and the woman being honoured today, let us deeply reflect on these proposals. And let’s rededicate ourselves to the cause of protecting and promoting the rights of Nigerian women and girl-child. They are our mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and nieces and it is our collective responsibility to protect them from harm.
Once more I thank the organizers for inviting me and I thank the author for writing the book on this very important topic.
Thank you and God bless.
Being a lecture by Atiku Abubakar, former Vice President, at the public presentation of the book: Re-thinking the Legal Framework for rights of Women and Girl-Child in Nigeria, in honour of Her Excellency, Amina Titi Atiku Abubakar, at the Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja on November 6, 2014.