The full blossom of the African girl child still has miles to go, with many girls still bearing the brunt of a string of heartbreaking complex misfortunes marauding the continent of untapped potential which can otherwise be harnessed to foster growth and development in diverse fields.
Africa is renowned as home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies and offers exciting frontiers for businesses looking for growth and new markets. However, gender inequality holds captive this massive potential.
According to McKinsey Global Institute, if Africa steps up its efforts now to close gender gaps, it can secure a substantial growth dividend in the process thereby accelerating progress toward parity which could boost African economies by the equivalent of 10% of their collective GDP by 2025. Due to the failure to embrace gender diversity, millions of girls, women, and Africa’s overall social and economic progress will not reach its full potential.
As the world celebrates the 2021 international day of the girl child this October, it is critical to reflect upon and celebrate gains, whilst highlighting the hurdles stifling the voice of the African girl child and redress this long-standing problem that stems from gender inequality. This is especially prevalent because most cultures in the continent are patriarchal, where society’s perception of girls is as second-class citizens albeit progress has been registered over the past decades which has for the most part seen the doomed fate of most African girls turn the tide. With more girls getting access to education, fewer of them are subjected to undergo harmful traditional practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or forced into early marriages, a lot more still needs to be done to advance gender parity across African societies to fully unlock the power of the African girl child.
Aspiration 6 of the Agenda 2063: ‘The Africa we want’ stipulates that the continent should strive towards “An Africa whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential offered by African people especially its women, youth and caring for children.” Furthermore, its priority areas advocate for women and girls’ empowerment, coupled with ending gender-based violence and discrimination. Similarly, the achievement of gender equality and empowering all girls and women is encapsulated under Goal 5 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
According to statistics by the UN at least 200 million women and girls in 30 countries have undergone FGM. In 39 countries, daughters and sons do not have equal inheritance rights and 49 countries lack laws protecting women from domestic violence; 19% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. By the same token, the UN acknowledges that making girls and women the epicenter of economies, will fundamentally drive better and more sustainable development outcomes for all, support a more rapid recovery and place the world back on a footing to achieve the SDGs by 2030 as projected.
The Chibok girls’ kidnappings by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in 2014, which sparked a global outrage, is just but a singular incident of the plight the African girl child continues to endure. Despite a fortunate escape by some, many are still missing; others consented to forced marriages, whilst others were released in October 2020. Last month one girl was released by the terrorist group and reunited with her family after seven years of captivity.
Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the African girl child
The Covid-19 pandemic has had deleterious consequences on the African girl child, threatening to reverse the progress made in gender equality hitherto. Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a surge in cases of violence against girls and women especially during the lockdown period. The UN Secretary General even warned that the limited gains in gender equality and women’s rights made over the decades, were in danger of being rolled back due to the pandemic; further urging governments to put girls and women at the centre of their recovery efforts. During the lockdown some girls were married off forcefully by their families to the highest bidder, in order to offset the economic pandemic shocks with the dowry received, cutting short their education. Teenage pregnancies shot up markedly, many cases stemming from sexual abuse perpetrated by close relatives.
Villains Against the Bloom of the African girl child
The African girl child has been plagued by a myriad of problems chief among them being harmful traditional cultural practices such as FGM, early marriages, breast ironing, taboos prohibiting women from controlling their own fertility, traditional birth practices, and forced feeding among many others.
All work no play has been the tale of millions of girls across the continent forced into child labour with some enduring some of its worst forms such as prostitution, pornography, drug trafficking, or forced recruitment of girls by armed groups. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 41% of children in the continent are at work with more than 30% between the ages of 10 and 14 being agricultural workers. In Rwanda, there are an estimated 400,000 child workers of which 120,000 are thought to be involved in the worst forms of child labour and 60,000 are child domestic workers. A recent survey by the Ministry of Public Service and Labour in Rwanda reveals that 40% of child prostitutes in large Rwandan cities were orphans, 94% lived in extreme poverty and 41% had never been to school.
Some 120,000 children under the age of 18 are thought to have been coerced into becoming cooks or sex slaves in Africa. In West Africa, an estimated 35,000 children are in commercial sexual exploitation. Moreover, according to ILO, there are 595,000 child workers in Zambia whilst in Zimbabwe an estimated five million children are being forced to work. In Morocco, an estimated 50,000 children, most who are girls are domestic workers. Child trafficking is another nightmare endured by young African girls, some lured into it with a promise of employment. ILO’s factsheet further indicates that between 10,000 and 15,000 children from Mali are working on plantations in Côte d’Ivoire, many of whom are victims of child trafficking.
In Nigeria, child labor is a quagmire. Studies indicate that the girl child is 80% more likely to be assaulted and sold into child labor than a male child. Statistics from the World Bank indicate that over seven million people are living in abject poverty in Nigeria which is the major reason why girl-child labor is on the rise in the country. Girls take menial jobs to just raise money for their families coerced by their parents especially to become maids where they are often mistreated and sometimes killed. Sexual abuse is not a rarity for most girls in foreign households and in case they get pregnant they are forced to abort in a back-door crude fashion.
Empowering the African girl-child
The African girl child needs to thrive and flourish as the future giver of life and mother of nations. Consequently, she needs to be propped up, guided, and empowered. The greatest tool to promote her is granting her access to proper education, as it unlocks numerous windows of opportunities hence empowerment. In tandem, it protects them against violence, exploitation, and social exclusion by providing keys to a brighter future for themselves, their families, and communities at large.
Governments across the continent should remain steadfast in their commitment to strengthen the law to help the girl child and accelerate their efforts by facilitating and bolstering equal access to quality primary and secondary education including life skills. Moreover, they can promote access to alternative learning opportunities for out-of-school adolescents, especially in entrepreneurship. If effectively supported and adequately equipped during their formative and adolescent years, girls are a valuable resource and possess the potential to transform the world.
Correspondingly, African governments should come together in solidarity and demonstrate commitment by dedicating resources for girls to realize their rights and effectuate their full capabilities. Likewise, they should seek to address the emerging challenges that girls face and promote girls’ empowerment progress to fulfill their human rights. Into the bargain, governments should boost their respective health sectors to ensure that girls who are survivors of gender-based violence acquire free and quality specialized services. Advocating and mobilizing masses to challenge discriminatory gender norms and create real, social, economic, and civic opportunities for all girls is also a viable strategy that can be explored.
Governments need to draft and enforce legislation, such as the anti-domestic violence laws and children’s laws, to protect girls and prosecute those who harm them strictly criminalizing perpetrators of harmful practices against girls such as FGM and forced marriages. To boot, nations should boost the availability of child protection services for girls and young women. Girls can be powerful agents of change and make for equal partners in solving the problems of today and tomorrow if granted the opportunity to be the drivers for sustainable development and peace.
Africa owes its girl child a fair world, free from discrimination, injustice, violence, and access to education for her to bloom and compete in the global arena.
By June Njoroge