Access and Equity Case Study: Girls Education and Millennium Development Goals in Nigeria

Below, I'm sharing a paper written for a course on Contemporary Approaches to Educational Problems. The paper is about access and equity for girls' education in Nigeria, and was co-authored by me and my colleagues Matthew Paushter, and Emily Jones.

We chose to examine access and equity for girls in education, because there are concerns about whether access and equity for girls is something we even really have in all our schools here in the US. With plenty of exceptions, even where I teach, I worry that some of my female students are not just quiet because they are shy -- but because they believe they should be, or because have been given messages that they shouldn't be smart, or should 'act like a lady,' which might impact their confidence (and that's here, in the first world). In parts of the world where education is not as much of a given as it is here, the problem is obviously worse, and is about much more than just about classroom confidence: it is truly about a genuine lack of access and equity.

One of the goals of the research was to explore the influence of historical, economic, and sociocultural/anthropological factors on girls' access to education in Nigeria. This paper examines these factors and their implications, and discusses some proposals for implementing changes in Nigeria. I also have a PDF version of the paper here: Girls' Access and Equity in Education in Nigeria. If you read the paper, I hope you might offer any feedback you think might be relevant for our group. If you prefer to digest the same information as a slideshow, our group's VoiceThread is publicly viewable: Case Study: Girls' Access and Equity in Education in Nigeria.

Instability in Nigerian Education System

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and largest economy. While other areas of Africa continue to improve, school attendance and literacy rates continue to decline in Nigeria.  The number of out-of-school Nigerian children has increased to 8.7 million from the year 2004 to 2010, and 4.9 million of these children are girls representing 58 percent of all primary aged girls (UNESCO, 2015). Literacy rates of girls between the ages of 15 to 24 declined from 1990 to 2010 to a rate of 58 percent compared to 76 percent for boys (UNESCO, 2015). Newly published census data reports that over 10 million children are now out of school in Nigeria meaning school attendance continues to be a serious problem for the country (UNESCO, 2015).

Nigeria’s historical pluralism, instability, wealth disparity, and cultural and religious beliefs impact access and equity for girls’ education in many ways. The historical perspective sheds light on history, politics, and policy that influence girls’ access to education. The economic perspective explores how poverty and the wealth disparity in Nigeria, and particularly in northern Nigeria, impact girls’ access to education. Finally, the sociocultural and anthropological perspective help examine the influences of cultural traditions and religion on girls’ access to education.

Historical Perspective

The story of Nigeria is the story of a country stitched together from many different ethnic groups, cultures and traditions, with stark differences between the north and the south. Much of what we know of Nigeria’s pre-colonial history is about trade. Southern Nigeria has coastal access to the Atlantic ocean and has traded with a number of nations, culminating in its becoming a major trading center in the Atlantic slave economy (Johnson, 1982). Northern Nigerian traders spread out into the horn of Africa and into the middle east as far as Mecca and Medina (Dike, 1956). As a result of these northern trade routes, Islam began spreading in the northern parts of the country in around the 9th century. Today about 50 percent of Nigerians are Muslims with the great majority of those concentrated in the northern part of the country.

The British colonized Nigeria in 1885, in part due to the slave trade (Lovejoy & Richardson, 1999). Nigeria’s chief export was people, and Britain had many agricultural needs abroad. Particularly, the West Indies sugar trade needed a more slave labor to maintain its existence as a viable and lucrative industry. Colonialism changed Nigeria: whereas many cultural differences and inter-group diversity existed in pre-colonial Nigeria, under British rule, these groups started to fuse their identities together (Lovejoy & Richardson, 1999). Colonialism also affected the role and status of Nigerian women (Johnson, 1982). Women in pre-colonial southern Nigeria played a large role in trade, sold agricultural goods at local markets, and had a voice in village politics (Johnson, 1982). The British introduced a system of “Warrant Chiefs” or local kings that consolidated power into a predominantly patriarchal system (Van Allen, 1972).

There are some documented instances of southern Nigerian women organizing against their colonizers. In the late 1920s, women began protesting (or “sitting on” in local terminology) the village warrant chiefs who were conducting a census to prepare Nigeria for broader taxation by Great Britain (Van Allen, 1972). These protests lasted from 1929 into the 1930s and are considered effective, as they resulted in a gain in women’s rights in Colonial Nigeria (Van Allen, 1972). Women won the right to hold positions of limited authority within the village. Women’s rights in post-colonial Nigeria have been overshadowed by the frequent military coups and civil insurrections. In 1967, the southern part of the country erupted in a civil war as the Igbo people fought to become an independent and autonomous state. They were unsuccessful, and saw their freedoms severely limited in the coming decades. Civil unrest, food shortages, the lack of facilities, resources, and a population unwilling to send their daughters to school have made these laws difficult to enact and enforce (Tibenderana, 1985).

Challenges in Educating Girls in Northern Nigeria

The spread of western education in Nigeria can be directly correlated to the spread of missionaries in the country. Just as Christian missionaries made little headway in northern Nigeria, education was also viewed with great suspicion by northern Muslim Nigerians (Tibenderana, 1985; Niles, 1989). The first schools for boys in northern Nigeria were not built until 1910 and even then they were only meant to educate children of the upper class, whose male children would likely grow up and become local authorities working with the colonial British government (Tibenderana, 1985). Schools for girls were built in 1929, but some ultra conservative Muslim families, including those from the upper class, preferred to keep their female family members in purdah, safely out of sight from others (Niles, 1989).

The stark differences between northern and the southern Nigeria continue today. While oil has brought relative wealth to the southern parts of the country, northern Nigerian citizens have been terrorized by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram (Zenn & Pearson, 2014). The group opposes educating girls. In 2010, they began specifically targeting schools (Zenn & Pearson, 2014, Warner, 2015). Boko Haram has damaged and destroyed over 300 schools in Nigeria and killed almost 200 teachers (UNICEF, 2015). The group’s violent tactics are responsible for displacing over 1.2 million Nigerians in the northern area of the country (UNICEF, 2015). Boko Haram has killed over 15,000 Nigerians, with almost half of those killings taking place in 2014 (UNICEF, 2015). In April, 2014 Boko Haram kidnapped 276 Nigerian schools girls in the northern village of Chibok (Warner, 2015). While few girls escaped, it is assumed the surviving girls have been sold into domestic and sexual slavery for militants.

Economic Perspective

Since the Nigerian government mandated primary education in 1976, and has tried to increase primary school enrollment in the north since then, the number of children in Western schools has increased substantially since 1976 (Schildkrout, 1982). However, this has created new challenges: the push to increase student enrollment in primary education has decreased children’s availability to help mothers caretakers during day, which is problematic for families that rely on their children’s help (Schildkrout, 1982).

For poorer families where children are the only domestic help, children, especially girls, are responsible for errands and household tasks (Schildkrout, 1982). Possibly as a result, the percentage of students who are girls has decreased since the government mandate (Schildkrout, 1982). In 1968, 27 percent of 49,580 primary school children were girls. In 1976, the year the government mandated primary education for all children, only 24 percent of 160,340 children were female; even while children’s enrollment increased, the percentage of girls’ enrollment decreased (Schildkrout, 1982). Girls’ education continues to be seen as a poor investment and “not considered wise; after all, she marries and ceases to be a member of the family… and does not perpetuate the father's name like the boys” (Csapo, 1981, p. 315). Besides this, Muslim Nigerian girls are expected to marry early, and since weddings involve “large initial expenditures,” there may be pushback against primary education (Schildkrout, 1982, p. 67). Additionally, there has traditionally been need for girls to provide domestic help, which may be tied to Muslim purdah (sex segregation) (Schildkrout, 1982, p. 67).

Across socioeconomic groups in Nigeria, girls are not expected to have any “particular motivation for success in school” (Floro & Wolf, 1990, p. 70). While there is great “opposition to Western education” for all children, it “is greater for girls than boys for many reasons, not least of which is the early age of marriage and the perceived need for girls' assistance in raising their own dowries” (Schildkrout, 1982, p. 68). Many Nigerian parents, teachers, and even students, expect girls to “regard marriage and children as their primary interests” (Floro & Wolf, 1990, p. 70). Meanwhile, boys' education is supported and “promoted,” because of the belief that men are expected to lead, and therefore need “Western skills" (Floro & Wolf, 1990, p. 70). While girls of all socioeconomic groups in Nigeria find their access to education is negatively impacted by existing norms,  girls’ access is most impacted by the wealth disparity (Schildkrout, 1982). Poverty leads to a decrease in girls’ participation in schooling, whereas wealth increases likelihood that a family may be willing or able to allow girls to attend (Schildkrout, 1982).

Many girls are actually withdrawn from schools for an early marriage, so that the parents can use the bride price earned from the marriage to pay for their sons’ education (Csapo, 1981). However, some families recognize that they can earn a higher potential bride price if they educate their daughters for a longer time; coming from such a family can also increase a girl’s likelihood of attending school (Csapo, 1981). Unfortunately, once a bride price is paid for a girl, her education would likely stop (Csapo, 1981). Possibly, this problem is more prevalent among the impoverished of Nigeria, who are more likely to depend on income from a high bride price.
Coming from nomadic cultures also decreases girls’ access to education. The Fulani Bororo people depend entirely on their children as fully involved members of the family economy (Csapo, 1981). The girls from these families are extremely unlikely to attend school, since by the age of five they carry milk to sell in towns (Csapo, 1981). In instances such as this, girls are unlikely to attend school due to their family’s mobility, and due to their family’s dependence on them (Csapo, 1981). Intriguingly, a 1977 survey of 150 Fulani parents found that 40 percent of families would be “in favour” of educating their children; however, none of them actually had their own children in school (Csapo, 1981, p. 316).

Coming from a wealthy family may increase a girl’s access to education, whereas poverty tends to decrease it. Poorer families cannot afford domestic help, and may require it from their daughters, which means the daughters cannot attend school. Wealthier families are able to fund daughters’ education, or at least fund domestic help, so “the enrollment of children in school does not cause as much disruption as it does for poorer families,” (Schildkrout, 1982, p. 67-68). These families’ resources render their daughters’ help less necessary (Schildkrout, 1982).

Increasing girls’ access to education in Nigeria would have positive outcomes for the girls themselves, as well as for the nation at large (Floro & Wolf, 1990). More highly educated girls are likely to have fewer children and contribute more to the economy than on domestic tasks (Floro & Wolf, 1990). They gain economic independence, as well as self-esteem, and social independence, and may become better mothers, family members, and friends as a result (Floro & Wolf, 1990). Education might even “lead to changes in both the girls' and her parents' attitudes about the appropriate age for marriage” (Floro & Wolf, 1990, p. 57). They are more likely to participate in the labor force, and more likely to influence government decisions (Floro & Wolf, 1990). Unfortunately, some of the cultural messages conveyed to Nigerian girls today, even in classrooms, reinforce girls’ positions in domestic roles (Floro & Wolf, 1990).

Sociocultural Perspective

Sociocultural factors, such as religion, provide insight into the causes of the education crisis in Nigeria. Kazeem, Jensen, & Stokes (2010) used descriptive and multivariate analysis of a diverse sample of 20,000 Nigerian households from the 2004 Nigeria EdData Survey to identify the impact of religious factors on school attendance. The researchers found that religious values and patriarchal norms often affect education decisions where Christian children are five times more likely to attend school than Muslim children (Kazeem, Jensen, & Stokes, 2010).  These results may be explained by the sharp distinction between boys and girls socialization in Muslim school communities. For example, female students are told to “keep their mouths shut,” tend not to ask their teachers questions, and are seated in the back of classrooms (Floro & Wolf, 1990, p. 70). Additionally, some Hausa Muslim school girls in Nigeria demonstrate high rates of failure on national exams, low self-esteem, and aspirations for their future (Floro & Wolf, 1990).

In addition to religion, socioeconomic status, parent education, family gender bias, and proximity to schools have significant impacts on school attendance for Nigerian girls (Kazeem, Jensen, & Stokes, 2010). Children from the wealthiest quintile are 7 to 9 times more likely to be enrolled in school than those from the poorest quintile, and females from poor families represent the lowest school attendance rates (Kazeem, Jensen, & Stokes, 2010). Parents’ education also affects attendance, and mothers’ level of education is more important than fathers’ (Kazeem, Jensen, & Stokes, 2010). Additionally, geographic proximity to school affects girls’ access to education in Nigeria; travel time to school of 20 or more minutes to the nearest secondary school poses a great obstacle to girls’ attendance (Kazeem, Jensen, & Stokes, 2010). Further, parental gender bias threatens children's schooling. Kazeem, Jensen, & Stokes (2010) found children of parents who believed they should be kept home for work or help with household chores had a 23 percent lower chance of attending school, and daughters of parents who feel boys’ schooling is more important than girls’ had a 45 percent lower chance of attending.

Anthropological Perspective

In an ethnographic study of a rural Yoruba Community of 1,500 inhabitants in Northern Nigeria, Aderinto (2001) conducted fourteen focus group and 10 in-depth interviews with community members. Aderinto (2001) found discrimination of women is traceable to male authority and decision making in the home where rigid gender roles are established. Definitions of masculinity in this community are linked to dominance or male honor, economic inequality between men and women, and the use of physical force for conflict resolution (Aderinto, 2001). Nigerian men are expected to inherit their fathers’ property, keep up their family name, and finance their families, while women are expected to bear children, perform household chores, cook, clean, and cater to their families (Aderinto, 2001; Ozo-Eson, 2006). Sometimes, if a woman does not have a son after several attempts, her husband may get another wife (Aderinto, 2001). Interview respondents shared that “the husband is the head of the wife” (Aderinto, 2001, p.181). Men are leaders, decision-makers, and heads of homes and village, while women have no reproductive rights in this rural setting (Aderinto, 2001). Yoruba women do not believe they are being oppressed by the social structure established by men (Aderinto, 2001).

Much of Yoruba Community’s cultural norms and values are observed throughout Nigeria including urban and suburban areas. Nigerian women have less access to education, accommodations, health services, communication, than males (Ozo-Eson, 2006). Women are subject to patriarchal control, and are forced to live by others’ decisions, in the public sector and within the family setting (Ozo-Eson, 2006). Societal decisions are based on male interest and concerns, without consideration for women (Ozo-Eson, 2006). Nigerian media supports this; electronic and print media show women caring for their home and family (Ozo-Eson, 2006). Many girls are forced into early marriages to elderly men to financially benefits their parents (Ozo-Eson, 2006). Ultimately, since girls are likely be future house-wives and second-class citizens, their education is considered unnecessary.


The historical fragmentation of Nigeria and the polarized differences between the northern and southern parts of the country have led to deeply divided views on the role of women in society with access to education severely limited for girls in the northern Islamic regions of the country. Nigeria’s wealth disparity creates challenges for the poor; while girls from all socioeconomic classes are impacted, the poorer girls are most impacted. Additionally, cultural and religious beliefs foster a climate of inequality, and impact girls’ access to education.

Solutions for addressing girls’ equity and access to education in Nigeria include policy recommendations and a call for social action within the country. Policy reducing the average travel time between home and school by situating new schools closer to where disadvantaged children reside would help (Kazeem, Jensen, & Stokes, 2010). Additionally, reserving 50 percent of the spaces in primary and pre-schools for girls could improve girls’ access, particularly in Muslim areas (Csapo, 1981). Muslim regions may benefit from alternative public education, such as sex-segregated primary and secondary schools (Floro & Wolf, 1990; Kazeem, Jensen, & Stokes, 2010). Finally, enacting laws to prohibit the disinheritance of women and eliminate patriarchy from the legal system would help women benefit from the law (Ozo-Eson, 2008).

Social action that mobilizes resources to prepare women for leadership roles and for improving their self-image, full participation in policy-making decisions, and economic self-reliance may address the extent of female subservience in Nigeria (Aderinto, 2001).  Some of these resources includes the use of mass media to teach parents about the importance of girls’ education (Kazeem, Jensen, & Stokes, 2010), and to establish an awareness about the magnitude of the problem confronting women (Aderinto, 2001). Nigeria’s citizens need to understand that educating girls not only creates long-term changes in women’s social status, but will also improve socioeconomic conditions for all Nigerians (Floro & Wolf, 1990).


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