Bauchi, Nigeria—The yellow stucco walls of the Adolescent Girls Program Center are decorated with the brightly colored garments of the day’s lessons. Students bend to the task of sewing using foot-peddled machines, developing the skills many will use to earn a living in the not too distant future.

They are the fortunate ones as millions of other teenage girls receive little or no education, let alone income-generating skills. The reasons are myriad and complex.

“[T]here are some believe within this community that it’s better to educate the boy child than to educate the girl child because the girl child after all will move to somebody’s house and whatever effort you put in there is going to be transferred to that other person’s house,” says Hajiya Larai Hammadu, Director of Child Development for Bauchi State.

She also cites other misconceptions that education should only be for men.

“Our people seem not to understand there is no religion that says you should not train a girl but that’s one of the misconceptions that we met on ground,” Hammadu says.

Still others, too poor to pay even basic school fees, simply cannot afford to send their children to school.

In the northern states of Sokoto and Bauchi—where on average 52 percent and 66 percent of children respectively have never attended a formal school—the task is daunting. For those who do attend school, national figures have girls in classrooms for an average of eight years, while their male counterparts complete an average of 10 years.

The Northern Education Initiative, a four-year project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented in Bauchi and Sokoto by Creative Associates International, worked to change the situation—starting with the communities.

Community-focused work

From the beginning, the Northern Education Initiative brought together state agencies, nonprofits and community-based organizations to identify barriers to educating girls, developed behavior change campaigns and opened special training centers as part of the Adolescent Girls Program.

“We partnered with 27 non-governmental organizations who were able to not only understand but master the art of providing all the necessary skills or education to these centers,” says Semere Solomon, who developed and oversaw Creative’s Northern Education Initiative.

Organizers knew that it would be an uphill battle, particularly since many of the parents of these girls had little education, held deeply entrenched beliefs or relied on the girls to generate income as street vendors.

The Federation of Muslim Women Associations was one of the 27 NGOs that partnered with the initiative’s Adolescent Girls Program, and its leader recalls the challenges she faced within the community.

“When we started it was a bit difficult because they were saying we wanted to take the girls off the street and deprive them of their livelihoods,” says Fatsume Mohammed. “But slowly, but steadily when the community were involved they do so willingly, and at the moment the enrollment drive at least the girls that graduated are also ambassadors of enrollment.”

The Adolescent Girls Program took off, and Creative opened 19 training centers that offered a curriculum that combined marketable skills with basic literacy and math classes.

Creative’s Solomon says, “These local organizations are based in the district, they are able to work closely with the communities and not only is the success major by the fact that we were able to set up Adolescent Girl Programs but the fact that they have become so popular that the communities started supporting them.”

Building Skills & Literacy

A primary objective of the Northern Education Initiative was to improve basic education through greater access to classes via non-traditional methods, including these centers.

By combing basic math and literacy classes with vocational skills like sewing, knitting, tailoring, and soap and pomade making, the program provides a solid foundation upon which girls can learn to support themselves.

“When NEI came into being in Bauchi, they even supported girls that have never been to school, and they offered classes for them,” says Miriam Yilila of the RAHAMA Women’s Development Program, which partnered in the initiative. “And those girls have learned basic education and they have learned vocational skills to support themselves.”

From the Alcaderi Center, one of the 19 AGP training centers established by the Northern Education Initiative since 2009, Mohammed and the staff have graduated 70 girls. At the end of the course, each graduate was provided with a sewing machine that they can use to start their own small business, a critical component to its sustainability.

“We have success stories where graduates get married but continue training other girls to sew, to knit, to generate revenue-generating activities at home instead of letting the younger one go out to hawk,” Mohammed says, referring to the practice of selling goods on the street.

Self-sustaining program

From the moment the Northern Education Initiative started in 2009, it was upfront with its partners: the project would end and that the community organizations would have to continue on their own.

To ensure the long-term sustainability of the project, the Northern Education Initiative provided yearly training for agencies like RAHAMA and FOMWAN in proposal writing, teaching them to access future funding to support their girls’ education activities.

Miriam Yilila says the preparation is essential to her agency’s ability to support the girls.

“Every year in any USAID project you have to write a proposal to win before they will fund you,” Yilila said. “They will increase your capacity [through] all the trainings that they give you.”

As scheduled, the Northern Education Initiative ended in March 2014—with a very successful track record in the states of Bauchi and Sokoto. The Adolescent Girls Program graduated 860 students.

“It’s been very, very successful,” says Bauchi’s Child Development Director. “You know that women, we are the engine of homes of our families. No mother would like to see her child wasted. If these girls have the opportunity to have what it takes to live and survive and be comfortable their children will also be comfortable. They will send their children for school.”

Back at the Adolescent Girls Program center, the girls are wrapping up today’s two-hour session on tailoring. Earnest and eager, they pay careful attention to the instructor, who was trained through the Northern Education Initiative. These girls are the face of a new future in Nigeria, one where girls are valued, appreciated and educated as much as boys.

Michael J. Zamba reported and contributed to the writing of this story.