Priceless*, 17, participates in a poetry workshop run by poet Theresa Lola in Nigeria in August 2019. Students analyzed poetry and wrote their own work exploring themes of conflict, education, gender, and discrimination. *Name has been changed. Credit: Save the Children.
Award-Winning Poet Theresa Lola Runs Workshop for Girls from Conflict-Affected Parts of Nigeria
FAIRFIELD, Conn. (October 11, 2019)—Ahead of International Day of the Girl, girls in Nigeria aged 14 to 17 wrote individual and group poems to explore themes of gender discrimination and violence, conflict and education. The workshops were led by British-Nigerian poet Theresa Lola and supported by Save the Children’s girl champion for Nigeria, Maryam Ahmed. Theresa’s poem ‘They thought they could stop us’ was inspired by the girls she met who, despite gender disparity, remain insistent that their education should be prioritized.
“I thought it was really important to shed a light on the issues affecting young women particularly conflict, gender inequality, and poverty, and it was also important to offer poetry as a tool of expression to talk about these issues in a different way than they may have done previously,” said Lola, who was born and raised in Nigeria before moving to the UK at age 13.
Several girls came from states in North-east Nigeria that have been plagued by conflict throughout most of their childhoods, placing them at increased risk of early marriage and threatening their formative years and future education.
“The conflict caused many problems in society and girls were taken as hostage,” said Zainab*, 14. “People are praying they won’t come to them. Some parents are afraid to take their girls to school. One of my friends’ parents stopped her from going to school. Now she is married and living in a marital home. She felt sad but she had to endure it. She is pregnant now. It makes me sad because every child has the right to freedom and education.”
Sexual violence is prevalent in Nigeria and is a horrific part of the ongoing conflict. A 2019 report[i] by Save the Children found that six out of 10 women surveyed in the Northeast had experienced gender-based violence. According to the United Nations, among survivors seeking assistance, 44 percent were children, of whom 98 percent were girls.[ii]
During the workshops, 14-year-old Best* spoke about the limitations on girls’ lives and the ways they have been trying to protect themselves.
“What I want to be protected from is sexual abuse harassment and all those things that hurt me emotionally and physically,” said Best*. “I try to protect myself by limiting my movements.
Most girls who have been abused are afraid of telling people and fear that they are going to be discriminated against. It’s because they feel ashamed. In these cases they are worried they won’t believe the girl and they will think she’s lying. Having female professionals is important for women because they feel free to talk about these problems.”
Over 1 million Nigerian schoolchildren have been forced to flee their homes since conflict escalated in 2009. An estimated 1,900 teachers from North-east Nigeria have fled the country.[iii] As a result, schools were closed for two years. While several schools have now reopened, poverty and fears for safety are among the remaining challenges to keeping girls in school.
Theresa Lola’s poem was inspired by the resilience shown by the girls she met. “What surprised me most is that they were ready to offer solutions to the issues girls face in Nigeria,” said Lola. “You can tell they are constantly thinking of these issues, and they know they are valid in the world. As someone who is proudly Nigerian and brought up in Nigeria, I know we are starting to have female women in leadership and that’s inspiring, but we have a long way to go.”
Despite being ranked as one of the most powerful countries in Africa,[iv] Nigeria has some of the worst rates of child marriage and poverty in the world. Girls cited protection issues and early marriage as the key barriers to education, exacerbated by a lack of female leadership in girls’ education and protection services.
“Girls face an ongoing vicious cycle of discrimination and protection issues,” said Dierdre Keogh, country director for Save the Children Nigeria. “Girls are excluded from education because of gender discrimination and fears of sexual violence or harassment, and when they suffer these issues, there are not enough protection services available to children, let alone enough women there that they feel comfortable to confide in. They do not see themselves reflected in government or policies, and they are determined to stay in school to change this. We need more women in government, and we need both men and women in these positions to advocate for stronger policies around girls’ education and ensure girls’ views are represented and heard. They have a lot to say.”
*Name has been changed
[i] Save the Children UK. (2019). Families Torn Apart: Protecting and caring for children separated from their families by the conflict in North East Nigeria. UK.
[ii] UN OCHA. (2018).
[iii] UN OCHA . (2016). Referring to Nigerian Union of Teachers, October 2015
[iv] Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria are the top most powerful countries in Africa, according to US News and World Report’s 2019 power ranking, "2019 Best Countries"
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