Straddling the last day in August and the first in September 2021, a two-day national dialogue on girls was held at the Sheraton Abuja Hotel; it was jointly organised by the Ethiopia-based African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) and their Nigerian counterparts, namely, Africawide Movement for Children (AMC) and Women Arise for Change Initiative (aka Women Arise). Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin of Women Arise and Dr. Joan Nyanyuki, Executive Director, ACPF were host and co-host respectively. Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, declared the dialogue open. Osinbajo’s fluidity as he made his speech “lai wo’we” (without a prepared speech) could only have surprised the foreign guests at the event. It demonstrated that the VP was on top of his assignment and needed not belabour himself fumbling and wobbling through a speech prepared for him. I am sure you understand what I mean! Minister for Women Affairs and Social Development, Dame Pauline Tallen, chaired the occasion and also gave a good account.
Issues affecting the Nigerian girl-child were discussed – their rights and challenges; the efforts of the government as well as its failures; the role of civil society organisations; and the duties of parents as well as the responsibilities of the girl-child herself. Representatives of state governments, diplomats, Labour leaders and civil society groups brainstormed on how to improve the quality of life of the Nigerian girl-child. The Ethiopians came with their own professionals who shared their own experience. As the rapporteur at the event, I worked closely with the Ethiopian specialist, Yehualashet Mekonen, who was a delight to work with. The girl-child was represented by a 16-year-old girl who drew tears from many eyes as she narrated her harrowing experience after her father jumped ship on the family.
To bring the national dialogue to a close, a communique was adopted. Titled “Towards a girl-friendly Nigeria: Urgent call for action”, the participants “recognize the efforts that the Federal and State Governments of Nigeria have made towards ensuring a girl-friendly Nigeria. Commendable as these efforts are, we, however, have come to the painful conclusion that these efforts are insufficient and incommensurate with what is required to make Nigeria a better place for girls.
“We note with a great concern that millions of girls in Nigeria are being robbed of their childhood and are thereby condemned to a lifetime of discrimination and inequality. We note with great concern that they are being denied education; are getting married too young; are sexually and emotionally abused at home, in school and communities; are being barred from owning and inheriting property; and are, usually, the last in the queue when it comes to State spending on health, education and social protection.
“We further note that girls in Nigeria have endured harmful cultural beliefs, patriarchal gender attitudes and discriminatory laws, policies and practices. Despite slow progress in some areas, girls across the country continue to wake up to the daily reality of gender- and age-based injustice.
“We realize that entire generations of girls and young women are being let down. We further realize that vulnerable girls of Nigeria bear the brunt of discrimination and marginalization. Girls in sub-optimal circumstances are the most discriminated against, marginalized and excluded. Girls with disabilities and those living in poverty, in conflict areas and disaster or humanitarian emergency situations bear the greatest burden of multi-layered, multi-faceted experiences of exclusion and marginalization.
“We note with great disappointment that Covid-19 pandemic is already clawing back on some of the gains made in girls’ rights and wellbeing. There are major concerns about the potential slowing down or even reversal of progress towards gender equality in Nigeria.
“We note that every dollar invested in a girl’s education or healthcare benefits society many times over, and is essential to achieve Africa’s Agenda 2063 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We equally note that failure to invest in girls, on the other hand, causes huge economic losses. Girls are key drivers of transformation and helping them can trigger a chain reaction that ultimately leads towards a peaceful and prosperous Africa.
“Girls attend school in unfriendly school environments where hygiene is a major concern. The poor condition of school facilities is so serious that girls feel embarrassed to have to learn in such facilities. Not only these poor facilities have made it difficult for girls to manage their menstrual hygiene, it also could predispose them to infections and other transmitted diseases.
“We fully share the call made in the African Report on Child Wellbeing 2020 that governments must act quickly to avoid significantly damaging the long-term economic and social development prospects of countries.
“We are convinced that investment in girls will lead to more sustainable development and societal prosperity and that breaking the cycle of gender-based discrimination and inequality will promote empowerment of girls and women.
“We note that countries must aspire to nothing less than a country where every girl develops to her full potential in an atmosphere of dignity and equality. To this effect, we make an urgent call for the Federal and State Governments to take action, particularly in the following areas: Ensure gender sensitivity in legal and policy frameworks for girls as well as pay greater attention to the implementation and enforcement of laws and policies relating to the girl child. Establishment of Special Courts for cases of child abuse such as rape, child trafficking, etc will go a long way in this direction; increased investment in girls’ education at all levels by ramping up spending to a minimum of 10 percent of GDP. These investments need to be targeted to improve school facilities, particularly hygiene and access to clean water and toilet facilities. Budget allocation should be matched by budget performance; increased investment in girls’ health and nutrition by meeting the Abuja Declaration target of increasing health spending to 15 percent of total government budget. Sexual and reproductive health and services need to be improved to enhance access to adolescent girls; commit to the International Labour Organization’s target of investing at least 6.4 percent of GDP in social protection with particular focus on girls living in poor households and remote rural areas without access to essential services; eliminate all gender-based violence in both public and private settings against especially vulnerable girls such as those with disabilities, those living in poverty, in conflict areas and in disaster or humanitarian emergencies ; Create safe space for girls at all levels of administration to enable them share their concerns and perspectives, play active role in the realization of their rights and have their voices heard so they can influence policies and programmes affecting them; and ensure full implementation of the Nigerian Child’s Rights Act 2003 all over the country ”.
It was in the middle of the event that my brother and professional colleague, Habib Aruna, Chief Press Secretary to ex-Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, called to say the online publication quoted in last week’s “Ambode: Guilty as charged?” was “fake news”. I promised him I would reflect that in this column today. I will, however, do more because other media gurus also called, among others, Mr. Isaac Okoroafor, Dr. Reuben Abati; and one person that never stopped surprising me, Steve Ayorinde, Ambode’s Commissioner for Information and later Commissioner for Tourism. Steve did not meet me at The PUNCH where he, too, sat on the Editor’s chair “generations” after I had vacated it; he accords me so much respect and calls me “boss” all the same. I will never stop appreciating him. So, I send my best wishes to Ambode through Habib and Steve and wish the former governor the very best now and always. I have said it before and it bears repeating here that the unsavoury events of 2019 may simply have helped to postpone Ambode’s second term to a more opportune occasion in future as it happened to Ayo Fayose and Kayode Fayemi (both in Ekiti).
I will, however, advise that any time “fake news” pops up its ugly and dangerous head, quickly “shoot” it down! Do not ignore it because the medium that peddled it is little known, lest it becomes a banana peel or your silence is taken to mean consent,more so since bits and pieces of information the online publication in question sewed together into a whole piece have been in the public domain for quite some time. Pa Edwin Clarke has done very well with the “fake news” about the alleged award of a multi-billion Naira NDDC contract to his company. He promptly “shot down” the allegation and gave his own side of the story wide publicity. Secondly, the best antidote for “fake news” is “true” or “original” news. I have suggested to Abati to consider having Ambode on Arise Television to tell his own side of the story. We have heard from Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who said Ambode made a good governor but bad politician. We need to hear from Ambode. The time may not be auspicious now so as not to pile misery upon an ailing Tinubu – and I wish him quick recovery – but at the opportune time Ambode should speak up. Otherwise, he should forever keep his peace, fake news or no fake news.
Bolawole is a respected columnist and former deputy editor in Chief of The Punch