Rabia Eshak was working in her community on health and development issues in northern Nigeria when she noticed something alarming.

“Girls were not in school,” she recalls. “They were invisible.”

Both boys and girls enrolled in first, second and third grade. “But once you go down to class four [or] five…the girls just disappear quietly,” she says.

Their absence struck a chord. Rabia thought back to when she was a child. Of the four other girls from her northern Nigerian primary school who were selected to continue on to secondary education, Rabia was the only one who attended. She thought about her two aunts, who married at ages 9 and 10.

Boys were also missing from classrooms in shocking numbers, but it was the absence of girls that struck her. “What’s going to happen to the future?” she wondered.

Girls in northern Nigeria are up against a lot of pressure when it comes to getting an education. Parents believe it is urgent to have them married by the time they reach puberty. Husbands have the absolute right to keep their young wives at home, their decisions condoned by local imams. Poverty can be the final and insurmountable barrier to getting an education when families cannot afford the uniform, the books or the pair of shoes needed to attend school.

Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world. The average girl leaves the classroom when she is 9 years old.

Rabia decided early on that this was not acceptable. For the past 30 years, she’s been an indefatigable advocate for providing all Nigerian children access to quality education despite everything standing in the way.

Opening doors through education

Rabia herself was lucky. She had a father who didn’t just encourage education, but insisted on it.

“Girls must go to school because the future is in education,” he told an 11-year-old Rabia as he dropped her off at a boarding school in Lagos, a no-go area for most Northerners at the time. “There’s just no argument about it.”

“My father was a fearless emancipator of women,” Rabia says today at the age of 57. “He’s still a conservative but he was more than conservative; he was a modernist. And he had a vision that the future is in education.”

Rabia did well in school, then in college at Ahmadu Bello University in Kaduna State. She went on to earn two master’s degrees from Ohio University—one in international development and the other in education, the most important and consistent theme in her life, she says. She was even more motivated to work on Nigeria’s education system when she returned home in 1982 and realized people were graduating from public schools unable to read or write, with no plans for the future.

Rabia responded the most direct way she could: she set up two schools herself. She traveled across northern Nigeria seeking funding for student scholarships and teacher salaries. And she launched herself into the public sector to keep going.

She became the director general of Kano State’s Ministry of Social Development, a position she says was a very rare opportunity and “a perfect place for me because it was not only women’s development, it was everybody’s development…thinking of the whole community, changes in health, in education, in sanitation and so on and so forth.”

Rabia moved quickly through the hierarchy of the public sector, reaching the position of commissioner in the Jigawa State Ministry of Health and Social Development, where among other achievements she set up five campuses of a polytechnic institute that would teach young people the skills needed to be self-employed.

Photo by David Snyder
Photo by David Snyder

An ongoing struggle

When she became disgruntled with the government’s lack of follow-through and slow implementation of health and development policies, Rabia returned to the development sector, first working with rural communities on mortality issues and then with U.S.-based organizations that took her all over Nigeria’s north for projects that focused on youth, good governance, child survival, adolescent reproductive health, institutional capacity building and education.

She led the largest health and education project on the African continent for five years—reaching 18 million Nigerians and inspiring the government to independently fund the renovation of hundreds of schools. And she made sure to hire women everywhere she went.

“I felt we needed to build capacities of women to work in this sector,” Rabia explains. “I don’t see any reason why we should want people to have a degree in development before you start working on development. All you need is the commitment, the passion and the vision to work there.”

When Creative Associates International asked her in 2009 to serve as deputy director for its Northern Education Initiative, Rabia believed it was a project that could provide an answer to the education problems she’d witnessed across the region.

The program improved educational quality, in part by training teachers. And it improved access to education for girls and for children in Islamic schools, who too often are taught to recite the Quran but kept illiterate.

Rabia realizes that her monumental efforts to bring better education to millions are part of a struggle that’s been going on for decades.

“Actually everything’s against me,” she admits. In fact, she found in her father’s files a letter he’d received from USAID, thanking him for attending a workshop on ways to strengthen Quranic education. It was dated 40 years ago.

Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world. Through her work in and out of the Ministry of Education, Rabia Eshak is working tirelessly to not only get children into the classroom but also to deliver quality education. Photo by David Snyder.
Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world. Through her work in and out of the Ministry of Education, Rabia Eshak is working tirelessly to not only get children into the classroom but also to deliver quality education. Photo by David Snyder.

This evidence of Nigeria’s longstanding educational failings did not deter her.

“I know my father worked on it, maybe his father worked on it, maybe his father’s father worked on it,” Rabia says.

She knows there is a long way to go. To have the most impact she can, Rabia returned to government service and is now serving as education minister in the state of Jigawa.

She believes that educating Nigeria’s boys and girls is a struggle worth committing to—and not a futile one.

“I understand clearly what I’m up against, but I’m not going to give up,” Rabia says. “I’m not going to give up because I know that at least in my little way, in my little corner…I could make an impact somewhere, somehow.”

By Jennifer Brookland