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Learning from Nigeria: Advancing Girls’ Rights in the Classroom

It’s rare to hear good news coming out of Nigeria. Among the headlines in recent years was the shocking story of young girls being kidnapped from a school in Chibok. The ensuing global “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign shone a spotlight on the vulnerability of schoolgirls in many areas of the country—how girls face threats of sexual and physical violence on a daily basis, from both Boko Haram and boys and men in their own communities. Less well known, however, is how girls in Nigeria are benefitting from a national program to provide education about sexual health, relationships, and gender in secondary schools.

On a recent visit to Nigeria, my colleagues and I interviewed teachers and observed classroom lessons to learn more about the program, which is called Family Life and HIV Education (FLHE). We found that—despite huge obstacles—the program appears to have a profound effect in schools. Not without its weaknesses, the FLHE program lacks some elements important for a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum, such as information about contraception, including condoms. Nonetheless, in the states we visited, a strong gender equality message came through clearly. Surprisingly, we found that the most impressive positive outcome seems to be the transformation in teachers’ attitudes around gender.

We visited eight schools in four states in which the state Ministry of Education collaborated with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Action Health Incorporated and Girls Power Initiative, committed to bringing a gender and rights perspective to their work with teachers. These NGOs provide teacher training and other technical assistance to the Ministry. They advocate to ensure that the FLHE program is not only implemented in schools, but that it addresses critical issues around gender and rights, such as preventing early marriage and sexual harassment. We spoke to teachers who told us that the training and support that they receive from these organizations had made a huge difference in their teaching and in their own lives. One female teacher said to us, “As I teach them, I have to teach myself.” After working with these NGOs, they felt better equipped to respond to their students’ questions and needs.

One male teacher we spoke with commented on his decision to speak at his church about female genital mutilation: “I opposed it before, but the training helped me to go forward, to be a voice [against it].” He added, “Being a boy, being a girl has nothing to do with what it means to be a human being…Boys can help at home with cooking. Even if girls cook, boys can help. Before only boys would play football, but now girls can play too.”

Another said, “I realized that someone who looks or touches you without you letting them violates your human rights.”

Other findings from the interviews and observations we conducted in Nigeria have been published in an article in the journal Sex Education. We saw signs that an investment in teachers’ commitment to improving girls’ lives may lead to significant changes in classroom culture, even where the formal curriculum includes only limited content. Furthermore, NGOs can be the catalysts for effective implementation of such programs. They need support to play that role.

Sexuality education programs with a strong focus on gender and rights have been shown to be nearly five times more effective in reducing STI and unintended pregnancies than programs without that focus. More than that, such programs are an important method by which to reach large numbers of young people with messages about girls’ rights, including the right to stay in school and to live free of abuse. Our observations in Nigeria suggest, moreover, that with adequate training and support, teachers can be agents of change, encouraging girls to feel more connected to school and creating safer school environments. Schoolgirls in Nigeria, and all over the world, deserve nothing less.

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