By Chika Onyesi
Among many of the challenges facing the girl child, sexual violence is one topic that has continued to dominate discuss even among little children.
This is perhaps the result of increased awareness about the effects of sexual violence and an evident increase also of the rate of the crime globally, plus the willingness of victims to speak out.
In 2015, UNICEF reported that one in four girls in Nigeria had experienced sexual violence before the age of 18.
According to another survey by Positive Action for Treatment Access, over 31.4 per cent of girls said their first sexual encounter was rape or forced sex of some kind.
These indices haven’t reduced, many years after, incidents of violence, especially against little girls, often build content for crime pages of newspapers, so much so that even little girls have been made aware of the ugly situation and now want action to end sexual violence against them.
In Nigeria, actions like rape, physical abuse, molestation, verbal abuse, forced abortion, acid attack or child labour are all factors rooted in and perpetrated through violence; these factors hinder the growth and development of young girls.
Consequently, many are not able to complete school, some become mothers while still children themselves while others contract life-altering conditions that destroy their future.
For 9year old Ella Okonkwo, girls stand the chance of reaching greater heights and achieving their potentials if the threat of sexual violence in schools is eliminated.
Ella is one of the over 2,000 schoolgirls in Abuja speaking about their expectations from the society, having been made aware of their worth at a conference on the International Day of the girl child.
She thinks the day is not only significant but also an opportunity for girls like her to demand a better future, especially as the world has designated such a day to celebrate girls.
Despite her young age, Ella knows the International Day of the girl child provides an avenue for young girls like her, even the underprivileged; to speak about challenges they face in their various societies.
She says ‘‘it is our right to speak up to the world and defend ourselves, it is our right as girls to aspire to be great, it is our right to be safe without any threat from the males’’.
The 9-year old primary 5 pupil is not alone in this passionate appeal; her friends are not shy to speak, they understand early on that they also have a voice.
10-year-old Lola Adebola expects the government to protect little girls like her wherever they are but says she would feel safer if grown-ups would look out for girls.
‘‘In her words, ‘‘I am scared to speak to adults I meet on my way to school, especially men, I feel like they will hurt me, my mum tells me stories of the bad things they do to little girls, like rape, abuse and kidnapping, so I am scared’’
‘‘Girls should be protected by the government, the schools, parents and by grown-ups around them’’. She says
These words from a little girl perhaps give an idea of the situation of violence against girls in Nigerian society.
But it appears the United Nations had through its 2019 theme, ‘‘Girl Force: Unscripted and unstoppable’’, ignited a positive flame among young girls with the hope of bringing their attention to the challenges they need to surmount in the 21st century.
Many young girls hope for a better future, others are determined to succeed despite the apparent challenges facing their gender.
With excitement, Gertrude Emmanuel, another 9-year old says she loves school and wants to study to become a famous lawyer in future.
‘‘I love school and I love my teachers because they take care of us, I want to be a well -known lawyer in future, so I will study hard, I am not afraid of anything and I don’t think there is anything that can stop me from going to school’’ she said.
Gertrude may only be a girl, but her determination and boldness in speaking against violence challenges adults.
This means there may be hope yet for Nigeria, especially if the projection of the United Nations on violence globally includes Nigeria.
Recently, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres confirmed that more girls’ under-18 are breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes to tackle issues affecting them globally.
Women and girls account for 94.2million of Nigeria’s estimated 200 million populations, numbers that could be a great advantage if positively harnessed.
However, many still experience forms of violence stemming from, culture, poverty, economic disadvantage, religion, early marriage, teenage pregnancy, poor or lack of access to education among others.
In the words of Ella, the government must protect the right of girls; remove gender inequalities, severely punish sexual offenders and remove challenges affecting the development of girls.