Savitribai Phule may not be as famous as Mahatma Gandhi or Swami Vivekananda. But her impact on the liberation of the Indian woman has been no less spectacular or significant. One of the earliest crusaders of education for girls, and dignity for the most vulnerable sections of society – dalits, women and widows, Savitribai broke all the traditional shackles of 19th century India to herald a new age of thinking. She can be legitimately hailed as the mother of Indian Feminism. Read about her remarkable life of courage and initiative.
“You owe her. But do you know her? Savitribai Phule, the Mother of modern education. If you are an Indian woman who reads, you owe her. If you are an educated Indian woman, you owe her. If you are an Indian schoolgirl reading this chapter in English, you owe her. If you are an educated international desi woman, you owe her.” – Excerpted from ‘Savitribai and India’s Conversation on Education’ by Thom Wolf and Suzana Andrade, published in ‘Oikos Worldviews Journal’ (2008).
As a new bride at the age of nine, when Savitribai moved to her marital home in Pune in 1840, her most prized possession was a book that had been given to her by some Christian missionary. Impressed by her thirst for learning, Jotirao Phule, her husband, then all of 13, taught her to read and write, little knowing that this would lay the foundation for a whole new chapter in Indian history. In times when women were treated no better than the cattle at home, Savitribai Phule earned the distinction of being the first Indian woman to become a teacher. For this she undertook training at Ms. Farar’s Institution at Ahmednagar and in Ms. Mitchell’s school in Pune. “The first Indian to place universal, child sensitive, intellectually critical, and socially reforming education at the very core of the agenda for all children in India”, is how Wolf and Andrade describe her in their paper.
Long believed to be the preserve of the Brahmins, children from other castes and communities were denied the right to an education. Savitribai and her husband broke the rules and established the first school for girls in 1848 in Bhide Wada, Narayan Peth, Pune. Eight girls, belonging to different castes, enrolled as students on the first day. When she started her unique school, Savitribai also overcame another hurdle – of women not being allowed to step outside the home to work. Of course, the young woman had to contend with a lot of opposition. She carried a change of sari with her every day as men pelted her with stones, mud and even dung as she made her way to the school. But undeterred by all the opposition, Savitribai opened another school for adults the same year. By 1851, she was running three schools with around 150 girl students.
“Women who cite harassment as a reason to quit what they want to do can learn a lot from Savitribai,” feels Sushama Deshpande, actor, writer and director of Marathi theatre. A journalist by training, she has written and directed the play, ‘Vhay, Mee Savitri Bai’ (‘Yes… I am Savitri Bai’), based on the life and works of the educationist. Today, 24 years later, too, the play inspires and enthralls audiences across the world. “Theatre journalism, as I call it, is my way of reaching out to women from all walks of life and telling them how strong they are through stories like that of Savitribai’s,” she says.
Today, government programmes like the ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’, the Right to Education Act and the midday meal scheme that incentivize education, may seem like modern concepts, but even 150 years back Savitribai had set a precedent – she gave stipends to prevent children from dropping out of school. She was the teacher who inspired a young student to ask for a library for the school at an award ceremony instead of gifts for herself. A poet and writer, Savitribai had motivated another young girl, Mukta, to write an essay that became the cornerstone of ‘Dalit literature’. She even conducted the equivalent of a parent-teacher meeting to involve the parents so they would understand the importance of education and support their children. Her schools imparted vocational training as well.
Along with educating women, Savitribai also took on the responsibility for the health and well-being of young widows, another exploited group. A poster from 1863 reads something like this: “Women who conceive out of wedlock should go to the home of Jotirao Govindrao Phule for their confinement. Their names will be kept confidential”. Pained by the plight of young Kashibai, a widow sentenced to ‘Kalapani’ rigorous imprisonment in the Andamans for killing her newborn, the Phules opened up their home as a shelter for young widows. Raped by family members and then disowned when pregnant, these women often resorted to suicide or killed their babies. The couple even adopted one child as their own.
Yeshwant, their adopted son, trained as a doctor and eventually joined his mother in all the good work she did. Setting an example for others, she conducted his wedding under the ‘Satya shodhak samaj’, or the truth-seekers society, with no priests, no dowry and at very little expense. She even brought her son’s fiancée for a home stay before the wedding, so she could get familiar with her soon-to-be home and family. Moreover, she took on the household chores so the young woman had time to study.
Maybe if soaps today had mothers-in-law like her instead of the scheming kitchen politics they show on TV, we may have reduced dowry deaths and other social problems.
laments Mridu Verma a journalist-turned-entrepreneur. “Savitribai is an Indian icon who realised the true meaning of women’s liberation long before it became fashionable,” she adds.
Savitribai and Jotirao were always there for the community. In 1877, their region was hit by a severe drought. The couple launched the ‘Victoria Balashram’ and aided by friends and funds collected by going from village to village, they fed over a thousand people every day. Earlier in 1868, during a very dry spell, they had opened up their wells to the Dalits, who were forbidden to draw water from other wells.
Stories of her personal generosity are legend. No one visiting the Phule home would go empty handed. At the very least they would be assured of a meal. She would give away her saris too, if she saw anyone in torn saris. Extremely hands on, she looked after all the young widows who came to their house to have their babies. She also personally nursed husband Jotirao to health when a stroke paralysed him.
says Harish Sadani of Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), an all-men organisation directly intervening in gender-based violence against women. Sadani admits that he is influenced by her more than by any western thinker.
Savitribai broke yet another taboo when she led the funeral procession of her husband. Even today, the Hindu last rites are considered to be the sacred privilege of men alone. When Jotiba passed away in 1890, warring relatives tried to wrest the rights of performing the last rites away from Yeshwant, faulting his parentage. Savitribai took the ‘titve’, or the funeral mud-pot, herself and led the procession.
Even the fear of death did not deter this brave woman from doing what she felt was right. In 1897, when the plague hit Pune, she was at the forefront. She even carried young Pandurang Babaji Gaikwad, a 10-year-old boy, from Mundhwa to the clinic strapped to her back. Ironically, he beat the infection but Savitribai caught it and in March 1897, she breathed her last.
“Every Indian woman who is educated today owes Savitribai a debt of gratitude,” sums up Sushama Deshpande, whose play has now been adapted by many and is preformed extensively to packed houses, adding,
Not a single performance goes by without a few women coming backstage to tell me how watching the play has helped them find solutions to their personal problems. She epitomises the aspirations of women even 150 years after she burst on the scene.
Today, the school Savitribai had set up is part of Pune’s ‘heritage’ walk, a reminder that her legacy needs to be carried forward for the generations that follow.
Written by Suchismita Pai for Women’s Feature Service and republished here in arrangement with WFS.
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Women in Nigeria have had various challenges in order to obtain equal education in all forms of formal education in Nigeria. Education is a basic human right and has been recognized as such since the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. A positive correlation exists between the enrollment of girls in primary school and the gross national product and increase of life expectancy. Because of this correlation, enrollment in schools represents the largest component of the investment in human capital in any society. Rapid socio-economic development of a nation has been observed to depend on the calibre of women and their education in that country. Education bestows on women a disposition for a lifelong acquisition of knowledge, values, attitudes, competence and skills.
To ensure equal access to education, the National Policy on Education states that access to education is a right for all Nigerian children regardless of gender, religion and disability.
Before 1920, primary and secondary education in Nigeria was within the scope of voluntary Christian organizations. Out of a total of 25 secondary schools established by 1920, three were girls only and the remainder were exclusively for boys. In 1920, the colonial government started giving out subvention to voluntary associations involved in education, the grant giving lasted till the early 1950s and at that point, education was placed under the control of regions. In 1949, only eight out of a total of 57 secondary schools were exclusively for girls. These schools are Methodist Girls' High School, Lagos (1879), St Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan (1896), St. Theresa’s College, Ibadan (1932), Queens College, Lagos, (1927) Holy Rosary College, Enugu (1935), Anglican Girls Grammar School, Lagos, (1945), Queen Amina College and Alhuda College, Kano. From 1950 up till 1960, six more notable schools were established and by 1960, there were fourteen notable girl's schools, ten mixed and sixty one boys only.
- In the 1960s, when most African states began to gain their political independence, there was considerable gender disparity in education. Girls' enrollment figures were very low throughout the continent. In May 1961, the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UNESCO’s educational plans for Nigeria were announced in a conference held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A target was set: to achieve 100% universal primary education in Nigeria by the year 1980.
- The implementation in the 1970s of the free and compulsory Universal Primary Education (UPE) was in line with this UN Plan. Ever since, UNICEF and UNESCO and many other organizations have sponsored, research and conferences within Nigeria regarding the education of girls. Up until the 1970s, considerably more boys than girls participated in education in Nigeria. According to one Nigerian Historian Kitetu, the native traditions' philosophy was that a woman’s place is at home and this kept many girls away from education. However, with the government’s intervention and public awakening, parents began to send and keep their girl children in school. Consequently, women’s involvement became more visible.
- It can be noted that purposeful plans of action led to an increase in females in schools after 1990. While more boys than girls were enrolled in 1991, a difference of 138,000, by 1998 the difference was only 69,400. At the pan-African Conference held at Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in March and April 1993 (three decades after the UN Declaration of the 1960s) it was observed that Nigeria was still lagging behind other regions of the world in female access to education. It was also noted that gender disparity existed in education and that there was need to identify and eliminate all policies that hindered girls’ full participation in education.
Gender disparity in schools
From 1970 to 1994, the enrollment of girls in primary education steadily increased from 30% to as high as 80%. However, differences exist between enrollment of males and females in all levels of education. In addition, the drop out rate of girls is higher than boys and participation in STEM classes are lower for girls than boys. In 2002, the combined gross enrollment for primary, secondary and tertiary schools for female was 57% compared to 71% for males. This translates into fewer women in certain economic fields as well. The percentages of female workers in some selected professions were as follow: architects, 2.4%, quantity surveyors, 3.5%, lawyers/jurists, 25.4%, lecturers, 11.8%, obstetricians and gynecologists, 8.4%, pediatricians, 33.3%, media practitioners[clarification needed], 18.3%.
Issues of gender equality in education have been the subject of much debate during the past decades and have become a prominent topic of debate in all countries. In Nigeria, there are large disparities between the education that boys and girls receive. Many girls do not have access to adequate education past a certain age. Currently, the female adult literacy rate (ages 15 and above) for the country was 59.4% in comparison to the male adult literacy rate of 74.4%. It is differences in education that have led to this gap in literacy. According to the Central Bank of Nigeria the gender gap in literacy rates at the rural level between boys and girls was 18.3 percent in favour of the boys overall. However, in the age group 6–9 years (primary school ages) it was only 3.9 percent in favour of boys. This indicates that there is a gender dimension to educational attainment and development in Nigeria. According to the Examination Council of Nigeria (1994) there are still other problems, such as high drop-out rates of females students, poor performance, reluctance on the part of females students to enroll in science-based courses and poor classroom participation Across various geo-political delineations in Nigeria, a greater percentage of school-age girls are needlessly out-of-school, compared with the ratio applicable to boys of same age grouping.
Gender disparity is also visible in the education of children with disabilities, a study in the 1990s revealed that only 37% of disabled females are literate compared to 57% for males. A reason for this situation is the cultural notion that the male will carry the family name while the female will marry. Also the option of street begging by young disabled girls in order to earn income can inhibit their attendance of classes.
The completion of the second Millennium Development Goal’s (MDG) target i.e. ‘education for all’ by 2015 is at risk after having missed the initial deadline of 2005. In Nigeria, educational facilities are generally believed to be inadequate and access is limited for many, especially girls and women. According to the United Nations Human Development Report (2005), Nigeria was classified as a low development country in respect of equality in educational accessibility.
Reasons behind the disparity
There are various cultural and socioeconomic issues that prevent women from having adequate access to education.
Culture, values and tradition
Various cultural and social values have historically contributed to gender disparity in education. According to work done by Denga, one prominent cultural view is that it is better for the woman to stay home and learn to tend to her family instead of attending school. To explain the fact that more boys than girls participated in education, Nigerian researcher Obasi identified a host of constraints with 'Nigerian tradition' being named as top of the list. The 'Nigerian tradition' was explained as a tradition that attaches higher value to a man than a woman, whose place is believed to be the kitchen. A study by the University of Ibadan linked the imbalance in boys' and girls’ participation in schooling was to the long-held belief in male superiority and female subordination. This situation was further aggravated by patriarchal practices which gave girls no traditional rights to succession. Therefore, the same patriarchal practices encouraged preference to be given to the education of a boy rather than a girl.
The Nigerian society (both historical and contemporary) has been dotted with peculiar cultural practices that are potently hurtful to women’s emancipation, such as early/forced marriage, wife-inheritance and widowhood practices. As daughters self-identify as females with their mother and sisters, and sons as males with their father and brothers, gender stereotyping becomes institutionalized within the family unit. Also, the dominant narratives of religion in both colonial and post-colonial Nigerian society privileges men at the detriment of women, even in educational accessibility.
Cost of education
The decline in economic activities since the early 1980s has made education a luxury to many Nigerians, especially those in rural areas. Because Nigerian parents are known to invest in children according to sex, birth order or natural endowments, girls and boys are not exact substitutes. Often the family can only afford to send one child to school. Because daughters have assumed responsibilities in the home, she is less likely to be the one to attend school.
At the beginning of colonialism and Christianity, rigid ideals about gender perceptions were imposed on the African mind. Thereafter, the woman’s role has come to be limited to sexual and commercial labour; satisfying the sexual needs of men, working in the fields, carrying loads, tending babies and preparing food. The disempowering colonial ‘ideology of domesticity’ as espoused by the practice of ‘housewification’ provided the springboard for women’s educational imbalance in parts of Africa. As such, the overall human development in Nigeria is being hindered by this unevenness in educational accessibility across gender categories.
While most of the Millennium Development Goals face a deadline of 2015, the gender parity target was set to be achieved a full ten years earlier - an acknowledgement that equal access to education is the foundation for all other development goals. In countries where resources and school facilities are lacking, and total enrollments are low, a choice must often be made in families between sending a girl or a boy to school. Until equal numbers of girls and boys are in school, it will be impossible to build the knowledge necessary to eradicate poverty and hunger, combat disease and ensure environmental sustainability. Millions of children and women will continue to die needlessly, thus placing the rest of the development agenda at risk. It is extremely important that girls have access to an education. For every additional year girls go to school, they receive 20 percent higher wages and suffer 10 percent fewer child deaths. Women with some formal education are more likely to seek medical care, ensure their children are immunized, be better informed about their children’s nutritional requirements, and adopt improved sanitation practices. As a result, their infants and children have higher survival rates and tend to be healthier and better nourished. According to The International Center for Research on Women, the education that a girl receives is the strongest predictor of the age she will marry and is a critical factor in reducing the prevalence of child marriage. The World Bank estimates that an additional year of schooling for 1,000 women helps prevent two maternal deaths. Also, each additional year of formal education that a mother completes translates to her children staying in school an additional one-third to one-half of a year.
Many policy analysts consider literacy rates as a crucial measure to enhance a region's human capital. This claim is made on the grounds that literate people can be trained less expensively than illiterate people, generally have a higher socio-economic status and enjoy better health and employment prospects. If women are these illiterate people, that makes them even more disposable to their economy. Policy makers also argue that literacy for women increases job opportunities and access to higher education. Although it is often viewed that a woman working in the home benefits her family, it puts a strain on the whole community as education is one of the keys to success and being able to prosper. According to Ojo, women in Nigeria are harder-hit than men by poverty due to the lack of emphasis placed on female education, and the prevalence of early marriage which tend to further impoverish women, and subject them to statutory discrimination. The most important ingredient of employment opportunity is education, especially higher education. If employment opportunities are different, standards of living, life expectancies and other parameters of existence and of well-being, will be different. "For Nigeria to achieve the goal of being among the largest 20 economies in the world, she must rapidly educate the children, most of all, the girls. Educating girls is known to be the basis for sound economic and social development. Educating girls produces mothers who are educated and who will in turn educate their children, care for their families and provide their children with adequate nutrition," says Dr. Robert Limlim, UNICEF’s Deputy Representative. "Therefore educating girls translates to better health for the children, reduction in child morbidity and mortality, thus triggering off a snowball effect of achieving all the other MDGs in a sustainable manner."
Current policies of progression
Currently Nigerian women are making many advancements within their society. In recent years, three male dominated professions, the Nigerian Medical Association, the Nigerian Bar Association and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, have been led by female presidents. The subsequent creation of the National Commission for Women and a ministerial portfolio for Women Affairs provide additional avenues for the promotion of women's educational issues and the enhancement of the role of women in national development by way of a statutory body and a Ministry. Today, more children go to school and learn to read and write than in previous decades. As a result, younger persons are much more likely to be literate than older persons. In a survey done by the International Education Statistics measured Nigerian literacy across different 5-year age groups. Among persons aged 15 to 19 years - those who were of primary school age in the 1990s - the literacy rate is 70%. Among persons 80 years or older, only 13% are literate. Additionally, the gap between boys and girls aged 15 to 19 is only 11%.
Nigerian women’s access to formal education is still being constrained due to their unfair workload within the household division of labour. Consequently, the realization of the MDG3’s ‘gender equality and women empowerment’ targets is being impeded harshly. Moreover, according to Bhavani, such unequal social and gender relations needs to be transformed in order to take women out of want and poverty. A 2007 UNESCO and UNICEF report addressed the issue of education from a rights-based approach. Three interrelated rights were specified and must be addressed in concert in order to provide education for all:
- The right of access to education - Education must be available for, accessible to and inclusive of all children weather male or female gender.
- The right to quality education - Education needs to be child-centered, relevant and embrace a broad curriculum, and be appropriately resourced and monitored.
- The right to respect within the learning environment - Education must be provided in a way that is consistent with human rights, equal respect for culture, religion and language and free from all forms of violence.
UNESCO estimates that an estimated $11 billion per year is necessary to reach the 2015 EFA goals. The disparity between need and aid is apparent: aid sent to low-income countries to provide basic education in 2004 and 2005 was at an average of $3.1 billion per year. The Fast Track Initiative (FTI) provides one of the most promising paths to universal primary education by 2015. Set up as a partnership between donors and developing countries and non-governmental organizations, the FTI endorses developing countries that put primary education at the forefront of their domestic efforts and develop sound national education plans. Nigeria is already maximizing these resources for the advancement of the younger generation.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and acceded to by 180 States, sets down rights for women, of freedom from discrimination and equality under the law. CEDAW has realized the rights and equality of woman is also the key to the survival and development of children and to building healthy families, communities and nations. Article 10 pinpoints nine changes that must be changed in order to help Nigerian women and other women suffering from gender disparity. It first states, their must be the same conditions for careers, vocational guidance, and for the achievement of diplomas in educational establishments of all categories in rural as well as in urban areas. This equality shall be ensured in pre-school, general, technical, professional and higher technical education, as well as in all types of vocational training. Second, is access to the same curricula, the same examinations, teaching staff with qualifications of the same standard and school premises and equipment of the same quality. Third, is the elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education. This is encouraged by coeducation and other types of education which will help to achieve this aim and, in particular, by the revision of textbooks and school programs and the adaptation of teaching methods. Fourth, the same opportunities to benefit from scholarships and other study grants. Similarly, fifth is the same opportunities of access to programs of continuing education, including adult and functional literacy programs, particularly those aimed at reducing, at the earliest possible time, any gap in education existing between men and women. Sixth, is the reduction of female student drop-out rates and the organization of programs for girls and women who have left school prematurely. Seventh concern listed is the same opportunities to participate actively in sports and physical education. Lastly, is access to specific educational information to help to ensure the health and well-being of families, including information and advice on family planning.
Government policies that affect girl-child education since 1985 include:
1986: Blueprint on Women's Education. An outreach and awareness campaign to promote the importance of equal education, increase the available educational resources for females and reduce drop out rates among female students.
1986: Nomadic Education Programme. Increase the access to education for children of Nomads without jeopardizing pastoralism.
1991: National Commission for Mass Literacy and Non-formal Education. A policy to motivate parents and families to send their school-age children to school and to establish training facilities that concentrate on domestic science, home economics and crafts.
1994: Family Support Basic Education Programme. A programme to encourage families living in rural areas to send girls to go to school as a means of promoting youth development.
1999: Universal Basic Education. Reduction in geographic and gender disparity in school enrolment.
2001: National Policy on Women
2002: Education For-all Fast Track Initiative.
2003: Strategy for Acceleration of Girls Education in Nigeria.
2004: National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies (NEEDS).
2004:Universal Basic Education Act.
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