How do you best address infant and maternal mortality, exploding population rates and gender inequity in the developing world? Most initiatives – particularly in Africa — have consisted of massive aid programs that more often than not stall or collapse when confronted with the continent’s endemic corruption, poor infrastructure and mores that tolerate or even foster female repression.
The Bixby Center for Population, Health and Sustainability at Cal is trying another tack – and it appears to be working, if a collaborative program, with Ahmadu Bello University, in northern Nigeria is any indication. It involves grassroots “asset building” among the poorest and most disenfranchised cohort in the region – adolescent girls.
The program is focused in and around Zaria, a provincial town with a devout Muslim population. Daniel Perlman, a research medical anthropologist with the Bixby Center, notes the area has one of the highest Total Fertility Rates (the average number of children borne by a woman over a lifetime) in the world, at 8.2.
This is directly attributable to the girls’ average age at marriage – in the villages outside Zaria, it’s 14.6 years. Such young mothers – and their children – are at high risk for illness, poverty, and ultimately, death.
“By delaying marriage even a couple of years, their outcomes improve,” said Perlman, who spends four to five months a year in Nigeria working with a group sponsored by Bixby. “But it’s not just that. Yes, if they delay marriage for a few years, they’re emotionally and physically more mature. That’s a step in the right direction. But we then try to work with the girls to help them build a set of assets – literacy, and social skills so they can negotiate more successfully with parents and future husbands, a basic grounding in economics and business. Our basic premise is that you need these personal assets to make sound strategic decisions about your life.”
It’s impossible to achieve this through existing schools, Perlman said, “because frankly, the rural schools in Nigeria are dysfunctional – they’re simply inadequate to the mission. So we’ve formed girls’ clubs, where they can learn to read, write and develop socially. The parents of girls who attend our clubs see the progress, and they become more willing to let the girls pursue their educations.” Perlman acknowledges that westerners are often highly critical of conservative Islamic culture, particularly as it pertains to women. In the Zaria region, girls not only marry young, but they are often discouraged from attending school, their marriages are arranged by their fathers and uncles, and parents sometimes receive bride prices for their daughters. But it’s not a simple matter of repression and misogyny, Perlman states.
“As far as the reluctance to educate girls, it reaches back to the colonial era,” Perlman says. “Education was associated with the British occupation, and the schools still bear that onus – that’s one reason, along with general corruption, that the schools are so bad. But attitudes are changing. There’s a general desire for education – including for daughters.”
Further, he said, northern Nigerians want their daughters to prosper and be happy – just as parents do everywhere. But opportunities and resources of any kind are rare in northern Nigeria, Perlman said. And those that do exist are usually commandeered by males; There is little left over for women or girls.
“I talk to the parents all the time, and they’re very concerned about their daughters’ futures,” Perlman said. “But how can you assure a daughter’s happiness in an environment where there is almost no scope for an education and a career? The only option is a ‘good’ marriage, a marriage to a man who has the means and the willingness to support her.”
Perlman notes he and other Bixby associates try to maintain a certain distance from the program – the goal is to facilitate and support, not direct and implement. Most of the work is handled by locals – more to the point, by girls who are participating in the clubs, and who function as mentors to younger girls.
“That in itself represents an advancement in status,” Perlman said. “Any girl who works as a mentor is called mallama by the people in the community, an honorific that means ‘teacher’ and commands considerable respect.”
The program has been in place for about a decade now, and Perlman feels heartened by the results.
“Girls who have participated in the clubs marry, on average, 2.8 years later than their peers who haven’t participated,” Perlman says, “and we’re seeing progress in education as well. Girls from our 2008 cohort were 12 years old when they first enrolled in the clubs. Now, six years later, 82 percent have graduated or will graduate from high school. For the region as a whole, the high school graduation rate for girls is four percent.”
The clubs in themselves can not assure a brighter future for young girls in sub-Saharan Africa, Perlman acknowledges. Along with raising the general quality of elementary and secondary schools, accredited post-secondary institutions and certification programs are needed to train girls for even entry-level positions in medicine, business or government.
Still, a much-overused word can be properly applied here to describe the most valuable asset provided by the clubs: empowerment. The clubs awaken a sense of possibility, even destiny, in the girls, and create a sense of solidarity that transfers to the community at large.
“Before, maybe two girls would walk home from school, and they’d be heckled by the boys and men,” Perlman said. “Now, you have 50 or 55 walking home. Nobody heckles them. They’re respected.”