ENUGU, NIGERIA: Divine Amara, a junior secondary school two or JSS2 student, was on the verge of dropping out of school when the Women Information Network or WINET visited her school to implement what it calls 'Right to be a Girl' project.
WINET is a local nonprofit promoting gender equality and women's human and political rights. Its 'Right to be a Girl" project is a post-COVID-19 intervention designed to reduce the rate of child marriage by supporting girls from poor and economically vulnerable households affected by the cruel impacts of the pandemic to stay in school.
One component of the project is scholarships to girls who otherwise would have dropped out of school to trade or marry very early. Divine became one of 22 girls at Community Secondary School, Iva Valley, Enugu, selected for a scholarship in 2021.
The girls also received school bags, pens, mathematical sets and two dozen notebooks each.
"The money that I would have used to pay my daughter's school fees is used for other family needs," her dad, Emmanuel Amara, said. "Divine can now copy all her notes with the notebooks donated to her, and she carries the books in the school bag provided by WINET.
Odd against girls
In a country where only 53% of girls complete high school, the odds are stacked against girls like Divine. Her father, a gateman in the school, and her mum, a petty trader, both struggled with raising her and two of her siblings.
Without WINET's help, Divine would have probably joined Nigeria's army of 20 million out-of-school children, 60% of which are girls constantly fed by the economic challenges of Africa's biggest economy that experienced two recessions between 2016 and 2020.
Recent data from the National Bureau of Statistics or NBS paint a gloomy picture of 133 million Nigerians living in multidimensional poverty, despite Nigeria being Africa's biggest oil producer. This contradiction happens due to continued economic mismanagement and corrupt politicians' constant diversion of public resources.
For many families here, it's a struggle between feeding and education for their kids.
"The girl child is always marginalised if family resources are meagre. They prioritise and send the boys to school while leaving the girls who help in chores at home or are sent to hawk," says Miriam Menkiti, WINET's founder.
"From not being in school, some parents think the next thing is to give them out in marriage. When out of school, some get sexually active and vulnerable to teenage pregnancy and are then forced into marriage."
Mundo Cooperante of Spain supports the scholarship component. To select the beneficiaries, WINET reaches out to the principals of selected schools in rural communities to help with a list of disadvantaged students in their schools.
"We were specific that our intervention was to assist indigent students, so we appealed to them to choose indigent students for us since they know them more than we do. The principals and teachers selected indigent students for us on the condition that they (the beneficiaries) will not leave school while the scholarship is on," said Menkiti.
WINET also gets parents or guardians of the beneficiaries to sign a commitment letter promising not to withdraw the benefitting students from school while the scholarship runs.
While WINET started the Right to be a Girl project in 2019, it was until 2021 that it added the scholarship component. Since then, it has supported 573 needy female students, including 147 girls from CSS Obeagu Awkunanaw, 72 from Comprehensive Secondary School, Mbulu-Owo, and 106 from Community Secondary School Ndeaboh, for the 2021-2022 academic session.
In the 2022/2023 session, it has 248 indigent female students comprising 106 at Comprehensive Secondary School, Akpasha; 22 at Community Secondary School, Iva Valley, and 60 at Community High School, Umabor Eha-Alumona; and Girls Secondary School, Oduma.
Journalist turned female rights defender
WINET's founder, Menkiti, is a retired journalist, and her founding of the organisation was somewhat more circumstantial than planned. While working at the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria or Radio Nigeria, she became the chairperson of the Nigeria Association of Women Journalists or NAWOJ, Enugu State chapter, between 1999 and 2001.
In August 1999, she led NAWOJ members in advocacy to the Enugu State House of Assembly for the passage of what is now the Enugu State Prohibition of Infringement of a Widow's and Widower's Fundamental Rights Law 2001.
That experience culminated in the founding of WINET.
"Many women approached me for assistance in resolving domestic violence issues, support for petty trading and counselling on family matters and advice on sexual and reproductive health and rights as well as safe motherhood," she said.
"That experience showed me that many women needed help in various spheres of life. So at the end of my tenure in NAWOJ, I founded WINET and registered it with Corporate Affairs Commission in 2002."
But the organisation did not function fully until she retired from journalism in August 2015 to focus entirely on building WINET.
But while WINET has supported hundreds of girls, Menkiti admits, "There are quite a number of indigent students who need such assistance, but we are not able to reach all of them because of funds limitations," she said.
Limited funding also means some girls' scholarships might not be renewed yearly as expected until graduation. Also, corruption in the school system threatens to undermine the initiative.
"Some principals have attempted to include amounts that could not be receipted for by the school, and we refused," Mentiki said.
But while the problems persist, as long as the scholarship programme lasts for some girls, it remains their hope to be in school.
"I am happy that I am among the beneficiaries. The scholarship means a lot to me and my parents," Divine said. "I hope to finish my secondary education and go on to study to become a nurse. I like the way they dress and the work they do to save lives."
And Esther Chukwudi, mother of one other scholarship beneficiary, said, "Gift (her daughter) would have dropped out of school. Her father and I do not have the resources to sustain her education any further due to the economic hardship in the aftermath of COVID-19 in the country."
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.