Education is important for everyone, but it is especially important for girls and women. This is true not only because education is an entry point to other opportunities in the society, but also because the educational achievements of women, can have multiple ripple effects within the family and across generations. Investing in girls’ education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls (Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations). A positive correlation exists between female enrollment in school and the gross national product and increase of life expectancy. In the words of Charles Malik, “The fastest way to change any society is to mobilize the women of the world”. Education which could be formal and informal, has many benefits for women; these include higher wages; a greater likelihood of working outside the home; lower fertility; reduced maternal and child mortality; and better family health. According to the Goldman Sachs analysts, “the impact of educating girls is not only felt in her lifetimes, but also in the health, education and productivity of future generations.”

However, despite all the enormous benefits presented through the education of women, 62% of illiterate adults are women in sub-Saharan Africa.
Factors that contribute to the high illiteracy level of women, especially in Africa are poverty, cultural and religious beliefs/barriers, gender inequality, one form of disability or the order, marriage, etc. Despite the works of many government, international agencies, civil societies, etc., there is still a lot to be done to enhance the access of women to education towards empowerment. This article explores 2 major barriers to the education of girls and young women, especially those with disabilities: gender inequality and the burden of disability.

Looking at a recently published United Nation statistics on gender inequality in education, one observes that the overall picture has improved dramatically over the last decade, but progress has not been evenly distributed across countries. Although the developing world on average looks likely to hit the United Nation’s gender-inequality target, many parts of Africa including Nigeria, are lagging behind. While progress is being made in sub-Saharan Africa in primary education, gender inequality is in fact widening among older children. The ratio of girls enrolled in primary school rose from 85 to 93 per 100 boys between 1999 and 2010, whereas it fell from 83 to 82 and from 67 to 63 at the secondary and tertiary levels.

In many countries, gender inequality persists and women continue to face discrimination in access to education, work and economic assets, and participation in government.

For example, in every developing region, women tend to hold less secure jobs than men, with fewer social benefits. The cultural and religious perception of the girl child and women in Africa still forms a basis for gender inequality in education. Early marriage is another reason, as many societies still belief that educated women are generally more difficult to control by their husbands. Use of girls as child labor is also a very important factor contributing to inequality in education. The United Nations, as part of their commitment to the elimination of gender disparity in all levels of education no later than 2015 made this the third goal in the MDG. Reports on this indicated that only 2 countries have been able to achieve this goal; while the leading short coming to this goal is violence against women and poverty (UN MDG Reports, 2012).

According to Mobility Aid and Appliances Research and Development Centre (MAARDEC), over 15% of young people are living with disabilities in Nigeria. Although it is difficult to determine exactly who and how many are included in this statistics, girls with disabilities form a large part. There are many definitions of disability, not only across countries but also within countries. However, what these varied definitions demonstrate is that disability is now seen as a social construct rooted in cultural, political, legal, and economic factors. While the World Health Organization (WHO) is currently leading an effort to achieve a new international definition that considers many factors; no unanimity has yet been reached. Here, the definition includes girls with physical, sensory, emotional, intellectual, learning, health, or other disabilities that may be visible or invisible, stable or progressive, occurring at birth or during childhood. To add to the burden of discrimination due to gender inequality, girls and young women with disability face many obstacles in their struggles for equality. Although men and women with disabilities are subject to discrimination because of their disabilities, women with disabilities are at a further disadvantage because of their combined discrimination based on gender and discrimination based on disability.

There are very little studies that have been done to evaluate the impact of gender inequality and disability on the education of girls and women living with disabilities in Nigeria. With the issues surrounding the passing of the disability bill, Nigeria may have a long way to go in ensuring that young persons with disability have access to quality education. However, national best practices that will ensure that young girls and women with disabilities have access to quality education include: the creation of a legislative framework and national plan of actions for inclusion, provision of accessible schools and classrooms, engaging qualified members of the communities of persons with disabilities in the implementation of national plans of actions for inclusion, development of the capacity of teachers to provide appropriate services, creating an enabling environment for an inclusive education at all levels, and improvement of data on disability and education. If we can provide a truly inclusive education in Nigeria then we can re-affirm national commitment to the fact that “education is one of the most important means of empowering women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence necessary to participate fully in the development process – (ICPD)”

Olusola Owonikoko