Naja’atu Muhammed is a 16-year-old girl from the Anguwan Malamai community of Kaduna State in Nigeria. Naja’atu was forced into early marriage by her father and was eventually cut off from both Islamic and Western education due to poverty. Naja’atu’s meals were rationed and her financial demise resulted in starvation and depression. Stories such as Naja’atu’s are unfortunately common in Nigeria, one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage and maternal mortality. 6 million girls are married by the age of 15, and 36 million by the age of 18 nationwide. Literacy is also particularly low for females, with only 14 percent enrolled in secondary school. This ultimately means that girls in rural northern Nigeria have almost no options outside of marriage and giving birth. Poverty, community norms, and tradition are some of the reasons contributing to early marriage.
The Centre for Girls’ Education (CGE) seeks to address this urgent issue by using safe spaces to change these norms. Safe spaces are typically used as an alternative, non-formal approach to educating adolescent girls who are neither in— nor likely to return to — school. The program, called Safe Spaces, is a targeted intervention designed and implemented to empower both in-school and out-of-school girls in the region through accelerated literacy and numeracy instructions, life skills, vocational training, and livelihood opportunities. The end goal is to reduce the risk of and vulnerability for girls and provide alternatives to early marriage. “Safe space is special because it is a girls-only space where girls are able to learn things that cannot be learned at home or in school through a trained mentor and also through peer learning,” Habiba Mohammed, Director of the Centre for Girls’ Education.
Naja’atu became familiar with CGE’s initiative when her husband was informed about them during a community engagement. He learned about the benefits of Western education and consented for her enrollment into the Out-Of-School Safe Space. Naja’atu was trained in basic literacy, numeracy, and financial literacy, enabling her to grow her savings and create value with her economic skills. The project gave her a chance to empower herself and achieve her two sources of income: running a small-scale business and providing supplies to retailers. She is now a role model in her community as she helps other adolescent girls to realize their own empowerment and get their own sources of income. “When I came here last year I had nothing. But now I can read and write better, people meet me to read and write letters for them, even my husband. I can also do math so my business does not suffer at all. I am now admired by many girls, and my son and I are now happier as we no longer go hungry”.
Many programs for empowering girls often run into problems when relying on contradicting traditional hierarchies. This challenge was addressed through an intensive human-centered approach, which meant design meetings, consultations, and workshops directly with the girls, their parents, teachers, and other relevant community members. Through this work, Safe Spaces won community adoption, which was crucial to the uptake of the program. The scope of this initiative has been able to generate key insights into the structure of a girl’s educational life and the untapped opportunities for engagement and program delivery. CGE has championed this cause beyond the immediate community by engaging with stakeholders such as the government, international donors, and religious leaders to deliberately and consistently create more safe spaces for girls.
To date, there have been 1,012 Safe Spaces implementing over 80,960 sessions for 20,240 girls in more than 100 rural communities across 4 states. There has been a collaboration with other CSOs along with primary and secondary schools. CGE has the longest and deepest experience with safe space clubs and complementary academic programs for in-school and out of school girls in Northern Nigeria. In order to grow the initiative in a sustainable manner, Cascading mentors have been introduced, these are girls who have gone through 2 years of safe spaces and completed secondary education to give back to their communities. This has led to girls speaking out on behalf of other girls to raise their voices for free, safe and quality education and gender equity.
The ultimate goal is to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty by delaying early marriage and childbirth, ensuring health and safety, enabling completion of secondary schooling, and fostering social empowerment. All of these factors make it possible to equip girls with better socio-economic assets and their internal capacity to leverage them. The girl-child is the resource with an abundance of potentials for the development of any nation and indeed, the world and humanity at large.