PARIS, France, September 7, 2020/ — Aqsa Dajani (alias for confidentiality) just finished listening to a radio session on literacy in her home compound at Yola South, Adamawa State of Nigeria; she is a beneficiary of the second-change education activity organized by the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative: Eliminating Violence against Women and Girls. The rape experience of her elder sister left a crushing influence on Aqsa, leaving her to believe that women neither have rights nor access to instruments to protect those rights.
“Sincerely, listening to this radio program plays a vital role especially to us – women and girls who stay at home idly. [Thanks to this programme,] I was able to read and write and also [sic] it educates me to know my rights as a woman which I did not know before.” Aqsa Dajani
This programme is developed under the Spotlight Initiative to provide accelerated second-chance education opportunities to out-of-school girls and young children facing intersectional marginalization. Many of those targeted for the programme are either ostracized or are on the margins of society because they are either living with HIV/AIDS, or are victims of early and unintended pregnancy, child marriage, gender-based violence or are classified as rural poor. This programme gives them an opportunity to be reintegrated into mainstream formal education.
“Upholding the vision to empower vulnerable children, youth and women through education and capacity building, GESA is assigned by UNESCO to provide accelerated second-chance education for women and girls in the ‘5+1’ focus states (Adamawa, Cross River, Ebonyi, Lagos, Sokoto and Federal Capital Territory)”, explained by Cynthia Evans, the National Coordinator of GESA.
According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in 2018 the literacy rate of females aged 15 and above in Nigeria was only 52.65%, which was about 18.6% below the literacy rate for male aged 15 and above. Even though primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 10.5 million of the country’s children aged 5-14 years are not in school, disproportionately affecting more girls than boys, (UNICEF, 2018). “This deprivation of education rights is severer among the women and girls who were married before their 18-year birthday. I was heartbroken and felt the necessity and urgency of GESA’s work while seeing the statistics reported by the National Demographic and Health Survey 2018 (82% of women and girls who were married before the age of 18 had no education). Thank God, the Spotlight Initiative came in timely.”
“Destiny can be changed through education, and I am the best example. My mother passed on when I was 16 years old, which hit me hard. As a girl in the family, education is always given a secondary priority. But I knew that only education could change the rest of my life. I persevered and finally made it. During my college years, I volunteered in the communities, and I noticed that there were many girls without access to education. This experience inspired me to establish a cause to empower a broad population of girls to get educated and thereby changing their life, as I did before.” – Cynthia Evans
Cynthia is a persistent and strong advocate for the protection of women and girls’ education rights in her community. She works very hard to ensure that the idea of girls’ education takes hold and deepens in the communities she engages with, in spite of the challenges she encounters along the way. Due to the pervasive culture of gender inequality in the Northern part of Nigeria, it is difficult to persuade the families of women and girls to join the programme. Yet she continues to find ways to change long held perceptions that exclude women and girls from education “I have to appeal to them time after time (through various channels). Sometimes, it is necessary to convince the key stakeholders in the communities first.”
“I have been deriving solutions to some of the critical challenges facing the young girls in society”, Cynthia explained her encounter with a 13 years old girl who was married out by her uncle to a man far older and the girl was abused. “I had a thoughtful conversation with the girl. It took courage for her to reveal stories to me, and (at that time) I could feel the rising determination within her to change her life. She joined our non-formal learning centre and regained confidence.” This pathway for women and girls’ empowerment through education is undoubtedly long and repetitive, “but I am grateful to see the beneficiary women change from the inside out.”
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic imposed a huge challenge on the continuity of women and girls’ education, as the second-chance education was delivered in a physical mode. However, a transition was initiated by Cynthia and her team: the Literacy by Radio Programme was developed and conducted. Witnessing a noticeable surge in cases of domestic and sexual abuse since the COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria, the Programme also embeds relevant information on sexual and reproductive human rights.
“Providing women and girls basic literacy is a prerequisite for them either to enter the formal education system or to be enrolled in a vocational skills program. It is the original intent to develop the Second-Chance Education Program.” – Cynthia Evans
There are countless heroes like Cynthia working on the frontier of women and girl empowerment, and because of them, progressive change taking place in the country. As the global leading agency for the Sustainable Development Goal 4: Education, UNESCO will continue to support these heroes to promote inclusive and equitable quality education with a special focus on gender equality.