Abigail was in her teens when she noticed how many girls dropped out of school in her community, and she knew she wanted to do something about it. Abigail was lucky enough to still have an education. Her father – a local church clergy member and mother – a community schoolteacher ensured that she didn’t miss out on learning with the little they had, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case for many other girls in the community of Udu.
Most households in Udu, Delta State, Southern Nigeria face economic hardship and limited access to education. Families often prioritise boys' education, so that girls can help to support the household. Oftentimes girls are eventually married to help relieve the family’s economic burden by accepting a dowry/ ‘bride price’.
Udu has a high population of girls who face deeply embedded gender inequality throughout their lives. When disasters like COVID-19 hit the community, girls and women can bear the brunt of the consequences as they exacerbate existing inequalities. For most girls here their options are few and child marriage or sex work can be viewed as some of the ways that girls can support themselves or their families.
In 2012, Abigail became a full-time student at university. The educational support she finally received inspired her to begin organising the same change for other girls in her community.
In that same year, Abigail set up the Youngpearl Foundation, now a Girls Not Brides member organisation, to advocate for the rights of women and girls in rural communities in Nigeria. Youngpearl also runs the ‘Back2School' programme, which was specifically created to empower and enable girls to return to education.
I knew I had to stand up for girls in my community because no one was taking any bold steps to address the harmful practices going on against them. I knew that if I don't fight for girls’ educational rights, no one will.Abigail, Youngpearl Foundation CEO & Founder
Strong traditional and social norms meant that many girls did not see the value in learning and complied with parental/guardian decisions made for them. Abigail was inspired to ensure that girls like her could access and achieve a better life through education, as well as raise awareness of the life-changing benefits that school can provide.
Through thick and thin, I have ensured that women and girls from rural areas have a better life, and platforms to thrive because I believe they are the most marginalized, underutilized, relegated and exploited.
Abigail’s focus is not only on girls’ access to school – but for girls to stay in school. For most girls, child marriage usually means an end to formal education. During the preparatory period before marriage, girls tend to drop out of school, or shortly afterwards when their marital and domestic demands increase. The ‘Back2School’ program provides learning kits, scholarships, sanitary pads and daily lunches for girls, and is slowly bridging the gender gap in girls’ education in rural areas across the region.
From her experiences in her community, Abigail aimed to shift the narrative about girls’ education, and build a space where girls can access the tools, skills and opportunities that have been out of reach for so long.
Girls have opportunity to bond and make lifelong friends, and through this, child marriages have drastically reduced. Girls now understand their rights and privileges, make informed decisions, further their education beyond secondary school level, and stand as ambassadors for their fellow girls’ education.
Learning about empowerment has since become an important part of the programme, to teach girls about their rights and agency over their own lives and futures. The girls can learn in a safe environment, whilst accessing inclusive quality education and learning materials.
During the lockdown, girls were eventually able return to school and access sessions in class once a community sensitisation program was run for their continued learning. Face masks and hand sanitisers were also provided for the girls and the rest of the community.
It wasn't easy having to tailor these activities to meet the lockdown requirements but at last we succeeded.
Through Youngpearl, I'm able to have access to education, meet other girls like me and learn effectively. I'm so happy and now I want to be a lawyer so I can defend the rights of girls too.Elohor, 16
A number of girls on the programme are activists themselves, challenging early marriage and their lack of access to education. Now with support, knowledge, and access to the learning programme, they have begun shifting the narrative.
After my parents died, I couldn't even think of going to school. It could have been marriage until Youngpearl included me in their 'Back2School' program. Now, I'm about to complete my secondary education and further to University. I'm so grateful.Nneka, 17
Girls are standing up for their rights in social spaces and make better and informed decisions about their lives, futures and bodies.
In the time it has taken to read this article 51 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds
Girls Not Brides
Youngpearl Foundation is an NGO that advocates for the rights of women and girls in rural communities in Nigeria, as well as address children’s welfare. Their work ensures that communities are empowered through women-lead involvement. Abigail is CEO and founder of Youngpearl Foundation.