The Girls’ Opportunity Index report by Save the Children, an Australian aid and development agency dedicated to helping children, has ranked Nigeria the ninth-worst country in the world to be a girl out of 144 countries studied. The report, released on Monday, just a day before the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, considered five indicators including rate of child marriage, adolescent fertility, maternal mortality, amount of women that are Members of Parliament (MP’s), and lower-secondary school completion.
A host of African countries surrounded Nigeria on the wrong side of the index as the 20 lowest ranked nations were from the continent with Niger ranked 144th–the worst country to be a girl. Three African countries managed to buck the trend, however. Rwanda ranked 49th globally and with 64 percent of female MP’s, it boasts the highest number of female MP’s globally. Algeria ranked first in Africa, above the USA and 31st globally and Tunisia was ranked 33rd globally.
The index highlights pertinent issues that Nigeria and the global community need to address to provide girls all over the world with a better quality of life. Nigeria performed abysmally on all fronts but child marriages and the low rate of lower secondary school completion especially be of great concern. “Child marriage starts a cycle of disadvantage that denies girls the opportunity to learn, develop and be children,” Carolyn Miles, CEO and president of Save the Children told Newsweek.
Girls who are forced to marry early often find that they can’t attend school and are more likely to face domestic violence, abuse, and rape. They get pregnant and bear children before they’re physically and emotionally ready, which can have devastating consequences on their health and their baby’s health. Carolyn Miles further stated that for many countries the issue is less about policy and more about culture and behaviour. The report shows that African countries on average have the highest incidences of child marriage. In Niger, for example, an astonishing 76 percent of young women were married before the age of 18, and one in five adolescent girls give birth a year on average. The continent needs to focus urgently on ensuring that policy and practice begin to protect the rights of girls in health, education, as well as in the household.
The high rate of girls failing to complete lower secondary education is another crucial issue. According to Unicef, 30% of pupils drop out of primary school and only 54% transit to Junior Secondary Schools. Reasons for this low completion rate include child labour, economic hardship and early marriage for girls. A large percentage of Nigerian girls join the ranks of half a billion illiterate girls in the world and lead less fulfilling lives as better-educated young women tend to earn more money, be healthier, have fewer children, be more politically active and emphasise health care and education for the next generation.
It can be argued that the criteria used in ranking these countries is far from exhaustive and the weights placed on each criterion is highly debatable. For example, African countries that rank lower than their Middle Eastern counterparts can claim their laws allow more freedoms for women in terms of expression, freedom to drive, voting rights, etc. As a matter of fact, Middle Eastern countries are ranked lowest by other indices. Yemen was ranked lowest in the Global Gender Gap report, a report that examines 145 countries and ranks them according to the size of the gap between men and women in education, health, political power and economic opportunity. Three other Middle Eastern countries made up four of the bottom five countries.
The ranking nonetheless highlights salient issues that impact the lives of young girls every day and have material knock-on effects on the rest of the society. In some countries, policies need to be revisited and updated but in many other countries, it is also about trying to change cultural beliefs, such as showing people the advantages of keeping girls in school.