Nigeria: girls’ education coming soon to an inflatable screen near you

I was recently in a dusty yard outside a primary school in Wusa, in Sokoto state, watching women gratefully receive money to help them send their daughters to school. It was the launch of a cash transfer initiative. There were, of course official speeches and the usual formalities. But what really grabbed my attention and moved me was the eagerness I saw in the eyes of the young girls and their mothers.

UNICEF had invited me the witness the flag-off of the cash transfer initiative, and this was a great opportunity for me to get some inspiration for a movie I’m working on that promotes girls’ education.

Dozens of girls were there with their mothers. It was really moving to see those young girls. You could see the eagerness in their eyes. The same was true for their mothers. Many of those girls, some as old as 12, have never been to school, because their families could not afford it. Quite a few or them work, often hawking food in the streets.

Now, each of them will get 20,000 naira (US$ 124) a year to cover the costs of sending them to school. This cash will go a long way. I’ve come to believe that when you educate a girl, you educate her family. Educating girls brings major social benefits. An educated girl tends to marry later and have healthier children, which is something that’s really important in Nigeria, particularly in the north. She will also be in a better position to contribute to the household’s income.

That’s the message I’m hoping to get across, in very simple terms in my new movie. I’m hoping it will be a film that will touch people’s hearts, a film that will help change the attitude of those who are still reluctant to send their daughters to school.

It’s difficult to get parents to send girls to primary school, but we want to go one step further and convince them that girls should go on to secondary school. All too often, when a girl completes the 6 years of primary school, her father will say: “that’s enough, now go to your husband’s house.”

In northern Nigeria, it is not at all uncommon for girls to get married at the age of 12. If I told people that’s too young, they wouldn’t listen. So I go about it in a roundabout way, by trying to convince them of the benefits of sending a girl to school. The longer a girl spends in school, the bigger the economic returns. Hopefully this will also help delay marriage by a few years.

We want to spread the message at grassroots level. We’re filming in the Hausa language, which is spoken in most of northern Nigeria, and I’m looking at the possibility of showing the film to communities on inflatable screens, and distributing it to the night buses that crisscross the country. We’re busy shooting the film right now. The story is still being developed as we’re filming. That’s often the way we work in Nollywood – as the Nigerian film industry is known.

As we work, I keep picturing in my mind this four-year-old girl I saw at the ceremony in Wusa. Her name is Rashida. She has huge eyes and her whole future in front of her. And I’d like to think we’re helping make sure a good education is in that future.

Zack Amata is a popular Nigerian actor/director. He runs the Center for Change & Community Development (http://centerforchangenigeria.org) which produces films to promote social change in Nigeria. He has collaborated with UNICEF on creating awareness of HIV/AIDS and of strategies for preventing mother-to-child transmission.

UNICEF’s cash transfer initiative is part of the Girls Education Programme funded by the UK government’s Department For International Development (DFID.)

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