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The girl-child as endangered species

Written by Bilkis Bakare - Nigeria
Bakare, a public health specialist, is of the Features Unit, 
Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja

In recent times, insurgent activities have taken a worrisome turn as more women and girls are now being recruited as suicide bombers. A few days ago at a crowded market in Damaturu, the capital city of Yobe State, a 10-year-old girl reportedly blew up herself, killing over 15 people and injuring several others. This occurred on the heels of the bombing in Biu, Borno State which was also said to have been perpetrated by a woman.

Wrought by discrimination and bias, the society, especially in the Third World, has dealt the girl-child a rough blow even before birth. In India, for instance, the country accounts for the termination of about 10 million female foetuses over the past 20 years while female infants are still found dumped in refuse dumps in large numbers. In Nigeria, the story is not different as women continue to endure all sorts of humiliation for giving birth to girls- the so-called weaker sex. It is the belief that female children drop the family names for their marital names, thereby terminating their ancestral lineage. In her journey through life, the girl-child undergoes a lot of harrowing experiences ranging from sexual harassment to early marriage and low level of schooling. Others include but not limited to exposure to violence, HIV infection, maternal death and Vesico-Vaginal Fistula.

It has been more than a year now that over 200 schoolgirls were abducted from their hostel at the Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, an event that has remained indelible in the minds of parents and empathisers alike. The drama that unfolded after the dastardly act made Nigeria a laughing stock in the comity of Nations. The report of the abduction was initially doubted by the government as one of the much propaganda by the "haters" of the administration in the Northern part of the country. Consequently, the leader of the insurgents through the internet boastfully promised to either sell off or marry the girls. Till date, the girls are still in captivity save some of them who were bold enough to flee from their abductors.

Although child marriage is against the law in many countries including Nigeria as international treaties forbid the practice, it is estimated that over 51 million girls are forced into early marriage yearly worldwide. Quite often, in most African countries, parents of child-brides are driven by factors such as pressure to conform to age-old traditions like preservation of chastity and economic considerations to give out their young daughters in marriage. It is not uncommon also in poor developing countries, for poverty-stricken parents to settle debts by offering their underage girls as payments. And as a result of the age gap existing between the child-brides and their spouses, they are often exposed to domestic violence and other forms of abuses.

Invariably, these early marriages deny girls the opportunity for quality education in addition to depriving them of their childhood. Among the more than 100 million children not in school, approximately 40 per cent are girls. In Nigeria, Women and girls constitute 60 per cent of the illiterate population. Also, most young wives are burdened by growing up responsibilities, household chores, rearing of children, and consequently, do not get a chance to interact with their peers or carry on friendships outside the household. This puts them in a state of complete dependence on their husbands.

Equally, child-brides often suffer from the VVF, a medical condition where there is an opening between the uterus and the bladder because the pelvic bones do not have sufficient time to develop before getting pregnant. This often leads to abandonment or divorce by their husbands and ostracisation by their communities as urine continuously leak from their bladders, leading to offensive odour oozing out from the victims' bodies.

Female Genital Mutilation is another heinous infringement on the rights of the female gender. It is usually carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15, most commonly before puberty starts. The procedure is traditionally carried out by a woman with no medical training. Anaesthetics and antiseptic treatments are not generally used, and the practice is usually carried out using knives, scissors, and scalpels, pieces of glass or razor blades. Girls may have to be forcibly restrained by elderly women by sitting on them, occasionally breaking their bones in the process. This unhygienic procedure often leads to the transmission of the HIV infection.

Today, of all girls and women's fears, that of being raped is the darkest. At least one in three girls and women worldwide has been beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. Sexual violence is the abuse of women's or girls' bodily integrity and this includes incest, indecent assault of young girls, rape, sexual harassment and child pornography. Incest which had hitherto been an abomination in the old days Africa is now common as even fathers these days sexually abuse their young daughters. The rape epidemic in our society reflects the extent to which women's and girls' (human) rights are being violated. It has gone so bad that minors, as young as two years old, are now being raped with resultant effect of preventing the victims from socialising or settling down later in the future. And it is regrettable that most cases of defilement of minors are not being reported by parents and guardians in the name of wanting to protect the integrity and identity of the child-victim.

Regrettably, some of these rape cases and incidents of child marriages result in pregnancies. Available statistics show that Nigeria accounts for about 13 per cent of the global maternal death rates with an estimated 36,000 women dying in pregnancy or at child birth each year with at least 5,500 of these deaths occurring among teenage mothers. Young mothers face higher risks of complications and death during pregnancy than older mothers, especially adolescents aged 15 years or younger. Adolescents have higher risks for postpartum haemorrhage, puerperal complications, operative delivery, episiotomy and preterm delivery, all of which can lead to maternal death.
Due to the stigmatisation of the rape victims, the resultant pregnancies are mostly terminated, usually through the unorthodox method. Unsafe abortion is another major cause of maternal death. According to the World Health Organisation, every eight minutes a woman dies from complications arising from unsafe abortions. Some of these complications include haemorrhage, infection, sepsis and genital trauma.
Therefore, it is essential that all hands be on deck to make sure that the girl-child dwells in a world where, from childhood, adolescence to womanhood, she is educated, acquires essential life skills and employment thus fulfilling her leadership potential and becoming an asset and inspiration to her family, community and the world at large. Also, appropriate legislations on the protection of the girl-child should be put in place and strictly adhered to and punitive measures taken against those found violating these laws. The time to act is now!

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