Centre for Girls' Education

"Your inheritance is your education"

Centre for Girls' Education | November 2023

"Your inheritance is your education"

When I first meet Habiba she is wearing a deep purple khimar. She is quick to smile, an infectious habit. She shares, “For me, every girl is important. She just needs the support and a little push, and she will be an amazing person that maybe people did not think she can be.”

Habiba Mohammed was raised in Zaria, a large city in the northern tip of Kaduna, a predominantly Muslim state in northern Nigeria. The streets are crowded with girls grouped like small flocks of brightly colored birds, their khimars billowing behind them. Strains of the call to prayer reverberate through narrow alleyways. Passing traffic kicks up red dust. Zaria is home to Ahmadu Bello University, a research facility, and an influential institute of higher learning for the region. It’s in the shadow of this university that Habiba and her three siblings were brought up. Habiba’s father died when she was eleven, and so her mother was left to raise the children and earn an income to support the family on her own. Habiba’s mother was a teacher, before rising through the ranks to become a school principal.

“Education is your inheritance,” Habiba’s mother told her on more than one occasion.

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From an early age, Habiba’s mother instilled in her children the value of education, especially for her daughters. In Zaria this was unusual. Most of Habiba’s girlfriends were married off before they completed secondary school. But Habiba’s mother continued to stress the importance of education as a means of independence. And so Habiba and her siblings persevered in their studies. Habiba married at 20 and found herself eight months pregnant as she took her university exams. It was not easy, but after five years and three children Habiba graduated from university with a degree in English Literature, an incredible success story in a state where only 48 percent of young women are literate due to the many obstacles they face.

I am unlikely to be alone in owing my primary exposure to child brides in northern Nigeria to the Chibok kidnappings. In 2014 the world watched in horror as members of Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from the Chibok Village School during the night of April 14. The rape, violence, and forced marriages of the kidnapped girls sparked a global outcry, launching the famous “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign as numerous organizations, individuals, and governments worked to recover the girls, with varying degrees of success. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility, saying that girls as young as nine are suitable for marriage, and the Chibok girls should have been married, not in school.

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Boko Haram had been terrorizing northern Nigeria since 2009. The swaggering gang of young men with limited economic options pumped full of guns and extreme religious rhetoric struck fear throughout rural communities vulnerable to attack. Women in the region were often at risk of assault and forced marriage to Boko Haram militants. While communities decried the kidnapping of young girls, the belief that a girl’s best option for the future is an early marriage did not originate with Boko Haram. It’s an ideology that has deep roots in rural northern Nigeria. For many families living in extreme poverty marrying off a daughter (often referred to as a girl child) relieves some of the financial pressures they face and can bring an economic stability for the daughter that the family is otherwise unable to provide.

Since the death of Abubakar Shekau, many Boko Haram militants have joined other terrorist organizations, the majority becoming members of ISIS-West Africa. As ISIS and other militant groups strengthen, the threats of violence, banditry, abduction, and rape continue to loom large in the rural areas of northern Nigeria.

Fate of the Girl Child

While Nigeria has the highest GDP in Africa, much of its northern region remain in extreme poverty, with up to 70 percent of the population living on less than $1.25 per day. According to Africa Check, “Poverty plays a central role in perpetuating child marriage. Poor countries and families often have few resources to support healthy alternatives for girls such as schooling. In such families, with limited resources, child marriage is often seen as a way to provide for their daughter’s future.” Research shows that due to cultural norms and the pressures of extreme poverty over half of all girls under 16 in northern Nigeria are married. These young girls are expected to give birth within the first year of marriage, often with devastating consequences. A baby born to a girl under 16 (whose pelvis is not yet fully formed) is 60 percent more likely to die within the first year than a baby born to an 18-year-old. Children who survive are more likely to be malnourished and cognitively impaired due to a combination of birth complications and a lack of nutrition. Similarly, maternal death rates are also high, with Nigeria contributing to 2 percent of the global population, but 10 percent of all global maternal deaths.

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Khadija and Hindatu

However, when a girl child is educated, the statistics change drastically. According to some estimates, currently only four percent of females complete secondary school in northern Nigeria. According to the UN, if all women completed secondary education, mortality rates for children under five would decrease by 49 percent, and 64 percent fewer girls would enter into child marriages. If all women completed only primary school there would be 66 percent less maternal deaths. Economic outcomes improve as well. For every additional year of schooling a girl child receives her future income increases by almost 12 percent.

Faced with these statistics, many northern Nigerians are advocating for increased female education. In 2004 Nigeria passed the Universal Basic Education Act (UBE Act), which mandated that all states must provide free, compulsory, and quality education for preschool through junior secondary school (roughly the equivalent to middle school). Due in part to grassroots advocacy, the UBE Act was amended in 2017 to include all 12 years of schooling, significant in that it is typically right after junior secondary school that girls are most at risk of early marriage. Similarly, in 2018 Kaduna state—one of the most influential states in northern Nigeria—created the Child Rights Act, which guarantees the provisions of the UBE Act in Kaduna and prevents marriage for those under the age of 18. However, there is a large gap between what is on the books and what is actually taking place in hard-to-reach rural communities. The Centre for Girls’ Education is working to bridge that gap.

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Centre for Girls' Education

In 2007 the Centre for Girls’ Education (or CGE) was created as a joint initiative between the University of California in Berkley and the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria after research revealed that female education was the best way to combat high infant and maternal mortality rates in northern Nigeria. CGE was founded to provide a quality education for girls in the region, delaying marriage and giving young girls time to mature physically, emotionally, and intellectually before becoming wives and mothers.

In 2016 leadership of CGE was handed over to Habiba Mohammed, a Zaria native and long-time educator and mentor. That same year she was named one of Malala Yousafzai’s International Girls’ Champion. She is currently one of the Malala Education Champions in Nigeria who partner for education reform and progress in female schooling. Habiba describes the vast swath of work that CGE is now involved in. “We provide safe spaces for girls in their schools or in their communities…. Where we mentor them on life skills, reproductive health information, gender-based violence prevention, climate change, adolescent nutrition, and other things that the adolescent girls need to know before she moves into adulthood.”

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Fatima and Amina

Zainab, a current CGE beneficiary, shares, “We have learned a lot since coming to the Girls’ Centre for Education. They taught us so many things, including how to take care of our husbands, how to take care of our children... They taught us about self-respect and how to respect our elders, and our younger ones to respect us too. They showed us the importance of eating a well-balanced meal and how it will help build our body systems. They pointed out the disadvantages of not going to the hospital and the importance of giving birth with a health practitioner (Midwife). They also taught us the importance of being self-employed. I have learnt about child spacing… I have gone for those prenatal sessions and seen the importance because I gave birth with a health practitioner and both I and the baby were given utmost care until the baby was fine. I was also lectured on the importance of child immunization, and I took my baby for vaccinations.”

Based in Zaria, the largest city in Kaduna state, the Centre for Girls’ Education is seen as an expert in the region, partnering with the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), the MacArthur Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Malala Fund, the OASIS Initiative, and many others, including local state governments throughout Nigeria. Through these partnerships CGE’s work has been able to expand, reaching seven states, and over 200,000 girls.

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Educating the Girl Child Reduces Vulnerability

By Hajara Mustapha
Malala Advocate with Girls Campaign for Quality Education
A project under Centre for Girls Education (CGE) Zaria with support from Malala Fund

Educating girls today is one of the most effective investments a country can make to lift families out of poverty and build a better future. When educated girls grow up and become mothers, they tend to have healthier and better-educated children. Educating girls reduces weakness and can impact an important sense of normality and provide lifesaving information and services that will benefit the society. Increasing access to education for all may reduce feelings of injustice that have fueled conflicts. Importantly, ensuring future generations are well educated is vital for overcoming conflict, aiding recovery, and ensuring future development and security.

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Safe Spaces

Despite its name, the Centre for Girls’ Education is not housed in a single, central location. Rather it’s a variety of programming, nodes in a vast network of educational supports embedded throughout rural villages and impoverished urban communities. Responsive to the community and the individual needs of each girl, CGE hosts programming based on age, education level, and marital status. The goals are the same—quality education, reproductive health, empowerment, and (when possible) delayed marriage—but the formatting shifts based on the needs of the population.

While CGE has expanded to include student-led advocacy campaigns, preschool, and vocational training, the primary goal of CGE is to provide Safe Spaces for girls in rural communities, whether these girls are in school, have left school and want to reenroll, or are unable to continue their education. It’s in these Safe Spaces that girls receive academic support, access resources, dialogue about challenges they face, and make decisions that impact their future. Led by mentors who speak Hausa—the lingua franca of the region—and are typically from similar communities, Safe Spaces empower girls to use their voice. Team Lead and former mentor Aisha Bello Aminu describes the reality of the risks girls face, “There is gender-based violence. There are some girls that will come and discuss it with the mentors because some of them are facing it. But from the knowledge that you've been given at the safe spaces, they know their rights, what is right and what is wrong.”

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A large part of Safe Spaces is dedicated to reproductive health. These topics are sensitive, and CGE approaches them with respect and thoughtfulness. Typically, reproductive health is only introduced after trust has been built with mentors over a handful of months. Aisha Bello Aminu describes, “We invite a health worker to their space to discuss it with them… She'll tell them she's not imposing it on them. It's their choice if they want to do it or not… Most girls during our baseline interview say that their first child died during the birth… After the intervention they were giving birth to healthier babies and they were spacing their babies and they were eating healthy too.”

One of the largest remaining challenges to school retention in the region is the lack of quality education. Even if a girl surmounts numerous obstacles and is enrolled in school, there is no guarantee that she will learn. Habiba explains, “What we see vividly is girls not learning in school. There was an interview that was conducted with a young mother of two girls. She sent the first girl to school and refused to send the second. She said, I sent my first girl to school for six years. She cannot read and write. I will not send my second daughter. And she has a case because girls will complete primary school and they cannot read and write.” CGE hosts after-school Safe Spaces created to fill the gap of quality education by providing academic enrichment and life skills for girls currently enrolled in school. These programs provide targeted support to help ensure girls remain in school and understand the value of education, especially during periods of transition, when girls are more at risk of dropping out.

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Khadija, Hindatu, and Amina

It’s important to note that while one of the primary goals for CGE is to delay marriage, young girls who are already married are also in Safe Spaces, receiving supports such as education and vocational training. Habiba explains, “We are targeting girls that were married early, between the age of 14 to 17. These girls have dropped out of school or have never been to school, and were married off. Some of them have one, two or three babies.” There are currently over 4,000 in the Married Adolescent Safe Space program, many of whom have now enrolled their children in the preschool safe spaces. Habiba—having personally experienced the hardships of balancing children and education at a young age—adds, “These girls are amazing, the challenges they have with childbirth, child-rearing, and the rest, and they still have that interest to want to rewrite their stories.”

Strategically, CGE is looking ahead, hoping to mitigate future risks to female education. Habiba explains, “We see the close relationship between climate change and girls education. We here are close to the Sahara. So, there is drought... Every girl, wherever she is, she'll plant a tree… that will help reduce erosion that is affecting most of the communities where we work. We believe that where there is good climate and food is surplus, education will easily be got, because when your stomach is full, you'll concentrate and will read well and be able to pass your examination without problems. So, we believe that we are at risk of climate change, and every girl should know that and she'll see how she will be able to support this issue so that it'll not affect the community drastically.”

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Electrical Wiring and Midwifery

For many girls in rural communities re-enrolling in formal school is not an option, often due to the great distance between home and school. For these girls CGE provides a variety of vocational opportunities, such as animal husbandry, micro-businesses, and phone and electronics. Aisha Bello Aminu explains, “For the vocational training the [vocational] expert is brought to the community. The girls are the ones that would select what type of business they want to do because they see the type of business that will prosper in their community. Because it's not just what you think will work for them, because they know what they want.”

Abubakar is an expert in electrical engineering, partnering with CGE to train girls to construct and repair electronics. He shares, “First we were rejected by the community because they said, ‘how will a man teach the girls skills that are meant for men only?’ (not knowing that the girls also can do it). But as time goes on, they see how we are we are progressing... now we're able to show them some parts of the electronics and how to fix them, how to repair, how to construct local lamps.”

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Habiba laughingly shares the story of one local father whose daughter was in the Electronics Vocational Training. Habiba begins, “The young daughter told her father, ‘If you can buy the wire to wire our house with electricity, I will do the wiring.’ And the father said, ‘What do you know of the work of men?’ The girl says she will do it. Then he said, ‘I will try you.’ He bought the wire for the wiring, and the girl called her friends that work in the shop together that they should come and support her.” Eventually, to the amazement of the community, the daughter and her friends successfully wired her father’s house for electricity. The community quickly changed their mind, clamoring for their daughters to be included in the Vocational Training Project. Habiba concludes proudly, “The girls are breaking gender barriers to be able to make sure that they reach their potentials.”

For girls who can remain in school, CGE has built pipelines for vocations that require higher education. Through their Girls for Health program, CGE works with girls in senior secondary school, assisting them as they take their exams, mentoring and filling knowledge gaps as they prepare for work in the medical field. These girls will go on to become nurses, midwifes, doctors, and pharmacists. Similarly, CGE partners with the Nigerian government to assist girls who are interested in becoming educators, helping them prepare them for university and graduate to fill the national teacher shortage.

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Communities Are Becoming Empowered

Historically, the greatest challenge to the girl child’s education has been the miseducation of the community she resides in. The old adage is that it takes a village to raise a child, and in many rural communities this is true, in that the perspective of the community dictates the way in which a child is raised and educated. Habiba explains, “The major challenges that we have was a misconception in some of the communities. They’d say, ‘people are here to change our religion. You are here to change our culture.’” Education for girls is seen as a misuse of limited resources and viewed with distrust. Community leaders often fear that education is synonymous with westernization or will lead to the moral degradation of their children.

Given these concerns, CGE begins any work in a new community by meeting with leaders to build buy-in for Safe Spaces. Habiba shares, “Here in northern Nigeria, you cannot penetrate any community without working with the community leaders or religious leaders because people respect them and value them. They're the gatekeepers.” Dr. Binta Asaba Mohammed, a chemistry professor and CGE board member, explains the approach they take to help allay some of these concerns, “When going to the community, most of our staff dress to suit the norms of those in the community… We respect their cultures; we respect their religious leaders; we respect their community leaders… What we normally do is show the community leaders and the religious leaders the importance of education in Islam, and that we teach them moral values that are in line with the Islamic religion. So, on that basis, they accepted wholeheartedly because in Islam education is very vital.”

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One such religious leader who has become an advocate for female education is Abdullahi. Roughly 40 of Abdullahi's daughters and granddaughters have participated in CGE programming. He says, “I am proud of the education being impacted on the entire community… they are now well educated as a result of this school.” Abdullahi uses his influential position in the community to advocate for CGE. He explains, “I am used to organizing PTA meetings for parents in order to motivate them, which constitute the chief Imams, Elders of the community at large. We draw their attention to the importance of education and its prioritization. They have now started believing.”

Local father Kabir has two daughters in CGE’s Girls for Health program. He shares, “I am personally an Islamic oriented person, and my religion has emphasized the importance of education, especially what has to do with health…this made me give my 100% support.” He adds, “I would love for my girls to reach a level whereby our community, state and the whole country at large can benefit from them.” When asked what advice he would give to other parents he shares, “Since they are ladies, a time would come when they would get married which might be a hindrance for them in achieving their dream, so there should be a mutual agreement between the husband and fathers to let them continue studying even after marriage because of the importance of education… They should be given full support.”

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Because girls are educated within the community, community members have a front row seat to their growth and development. Dr. Binta explains, “Now other members of the community want to emulate them. They're happy with the girls, so they want their children to participate… So now they saw that these girls are being empowered, they're being enlightened.”

Aisha Bello Aminu shares, “Sometimes when men see changes in their wives, even in those that have two or three wives, they come to Safe Spaces and meet the mentor to ask her to allow the other wives to attend. And sometimes some of them even come to our office to show their gratitude for the changes that they see in their wives.”

Dr. Binta Asaba Mohammed adds, “Communities are becoming empowered.”

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Sakina’s Story

Sakina grew up in Zaria, in the northern Nigerian state of Kaduna. She married at 17, and currently has four children.

At the time I graduated from primary school, I was idle at home and couldn't continue schooling because in our community, girls are not allowed to further their studies but are rather married off. So when I finished, I just thought to myself that was the end of my studies and that I was probably also going to be married off.

The challenges I faced at the time I wanted to further my education, was my community being against girl child education. When I was schooling, there were a lot of speculations; they even said that my dad was recruiting me into prostitution not schooling. All these speculations and rumors were meant to instigate my father against my schooling, but he ignored all these and was very supportive. This really hurt my feelings a lot because it reached to an extent that they manipulated my mother against letting me go to school. My mother believed in their speculations that I was going to be a bad influence by going to school. She was made to believe that I was going to be a prostitute and only envisioned the disadvantages of schooling. She wanted nothing but marriage for me. My parents had a huge argument on whether I should continue schooling or get married. All these challenges that I faced really hurt me and I wouldn’t want my own child to face similar experiences. I would love to change the narrative and break the norms.

Then the Centre came, and assigned mentors who were paid to come and teach us in our communities. So as we were attending those lessons, I was able to continue with my studies and graduate from secondary school. The center trained us on advocacy, such as how to tackle issues and report to the appropriate channel. After we were fully trained, the center employed us to assist those mentors that were teaching girls younger than us in our communities. We also joined those classes. We watched how they taught, and we helped them and gained more knowledge. Afterwards, I was employed as an intern, and presently I’m a mentor at the Centre.

At one point the Centre deployed me to that same community that despised me for going to school, in order to enlighten the community and show them the importance of education. Some of the parents have now accepted and taken their children to school. They have seen the importance of girl child education because I’m now a role model to the community.

Right now, my greatest ambition is to become a teacher, as I have gone through the process and seen the importance of girl child education. I would also want to impact this knowledge on other girls too.

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"Now they have a voice"

Despite setbacks and challenges, CGE has seen success. In the areas in which they work, 82 percent of girls are now graduating from secondary school, up from just 4 percent when they first entered the community. And on average, a girls’ marriage in the region is delayed by 2.5 years.

But perhaps most significantly are the changes in the girls themselves. Dr. Binta says, “These safe spaces have changed the narration of most of the girls.” She explains, “When we started mentoring at the grassroots, most of these girls are very shy… Now most of them want to finish schooling before getting married. And now they have a voice. They talk to their parents on what they want and what they don't want.”

Dr. Binta describes watching the girls share stories of what their lives were like before and after becoming part of safes spaces, “Some even used to cry, they're very emotional when they hear their stories, where they started from and where they have reached now… There's a progress. It has touched the lives of many, many, many people within Zaria, in Kaduna state, and outside Kaduna state.”


Habiba is ever mindful of the magnitude of the problem. Always the advocate she explains, “We are trying to see how we can work with governments to be able to implement the safe space model into the school calendar… So it's one of the subjects that they have to go through in the school… Every girl, wherever she is, she'll be able to have at least two years of safe spaces.” She pauses, emphasizing, “We cannot do it alone. We need to work with others to do it.”

CGE has begun to train other educators and practitioners throughout the Sahel region in how to reach the most vulnerable girls, drawing on the successes of Safe Spaces. Habiba shares, “Our hope for the future is that the Center for Girls’ Education will be a learning hub for everybody that wants to work with girls and to support girls to be who they want to be.” Habiba smiles, “And our hope is that these girls will be the ones that will be leading the organization in the very near future. When you talk, you won't have talk to Habiba, you'll talk to one of the girls as the director of Center for Girls Education.”

Hani and Amina

Today, Habiba has ten children, all of whom have graduated from university and heeded their mother’s advice to postpone marriage until after completing their schooling. Habiba is proud of the inheritance her mother left her and sees her work as a continuation.

Habiba smiles, “Wherever my mother is now, I know that she is happy because her children are educated.”

Habiba’s story illustrates the unique possibility of education. It’s an investment in the future, a seed that’s been planted with the unlimited potential to spawn new growth. As one CGE mentor explained, “Educating your own child is like educating a whole nation.”

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Editor's Note

Every now and then the BitterSweet story mold breaks, never to be the same (in the best possible way). In this case we were prevented from traveling to Northern Nigeria in the summer months because of heightened volatility surrounding local elections. Our team was gutted, as were the staff and students of Centre for Girls' Education, yet because of their determination and creativity we were able to collaborate even more deeply.

With Steve Jeter and Alfred Quartey's ingenuity, we shipped 30 single-use cameras to the students along with shotlist guidance. With the educators' help, the girls captured their worlds with a new lens and shared that generously with us here. I was stunned and moved to tears when I first saw the developed images, so impressed by the intimacy and honesty of the moments the girls captured and the captions they wrote. It is our honor and great privilege to publish their work and I want to thank Habiba and Maryam, particularly, for guiding the process so diligently and with such kindness.

Our writer, Avery Marks, dedicated dozens of hours to interviews and writing (all of which is made extra difficult when we're not able to travel and share presence) and so I am very glad also to acknowledge her herculean effort and marvelous way with words.

Kate Schmidgall 2022 color
Kate Sig

Kate Schmidgall

Editor-in-Chief, BitterSweet Monthly

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