Africa needs a data revolution in health and education

Today is the International Day of the Girl Child, a day to recognise the rights of the Girl Child and the unique challenges they face in our male-dominated society. This challenge is particularly acute in Africa.

Gender disadvantages become apparent from conception. Nigeria alone accounts for 14% of global maternal deaths each year, with a woman facing a 1 in 13 risk of dying during childbirth or pregnancy in her lifetime. This is largely due to a lack of maternal health facilities, especially in rural areas. Of the women that do make it to hospitals, space constraints and a lack of qualified staff mean that some women wait for hours to be seen. Some are sent home. This reflects the gender specific challenges experienced in Nigeria, and across Africa, that are so persistent and widespread that even the very process of childbirth is marred by them.

The lack of maternal and post-natal care facilities in Africa has wider implications. Once born outside of a hospital, it is unlikely that a child will be formally registered. Without registration, the child is exempt from government provisions; they become invisible in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of a state which should protect and support them. Furthermore, vaccinations that protect both individuals and communities from infectious diseases, are often forgotten if a child is not born in medical facilities. In the UK, health registers track a child's development, mapping out inoculation staging posts as the child grows. This is not the case in Nigeria and beyond. Just a few months ago polio reared its ugly head again in Northeastern Nigeria, signifying a huge setback to the global polio eradication effort, and a personal tragedy for those victims left paralysed. This could have been prevented, if universal vaccinations were tracked and distributed to new-borns.

Something as simple as improved maternal care therefore could impact not only the mother and child in the short-term, but could go on to have long-lasting effects; societal inclusion, eligibility to government support, and much-needed vaccinations and immunisations against potentially fatal diseases. In failing to track a girl's development and cater for the needs of women before, during and after childbirth, we are failing a generation who become invisible to society.

This trend also follows through to education. Across the developing world, education is often reserved as a male privilege, due to a lack of resources and the belief that the primary role of a girl is as a wife and mother. Just 41% of Nigerian women are literate, compared to 61% of their male counterparts. The very fact we can compile data which reveals these figures is progress but the fact remains that we do not gather enough data about our young girls as they move through the education system to see if and how we are making progress and where improvement is needed. Much like in health, we need a data revolution in education. Education, and primarily literacy, is the key to empowerment, both economic and social, and is an absolutely essential step in narrowing the gender divide. In the absence of schooling, girls are denied the opportunities in life that are pivotal to escaping poverty and becoming economically independent. When young girls fall out of the education system we must know about it and we must endeavour to find out why. It is not acceptable for any girl to be allowed to fade away from education without even the basic skills to empower then in later life.

If data can play a proactive, empowering role for the health and education of girls in Africa it can play a preventative role as well. Traditional practices such as Female Genital Mutilation are still prevalent in Nigeria and West Africa, inflicting pain, indignity and the risk of potential complications on girls across the country. This practice must be identified and stopped, through educating communities on the risks, as well as challenging their preconceptions that drive the practice. By collecting more and better data on where and when the practice is most prevalent we can better target communities with the kind of information, education and support needed to move away from this horrific practice.

At the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, we strive to ensure that Nigeria's girls are not left behind. Through the distribution of maternal care kits to assist in childbirth, the provision of girls' education, and advocacy on the rights of the Girl Child, the WBFA endeavours to break this cycle of subordination and to give girls the opportunities they deserve. But we also now want to start gathering the data that will help solve the country and region wide problems outlined in this piece. That is why today we care committing to partnering with the government in Nigeria at every level to ensure that within five years every Nigerian child will have a health record which will be digitised. This is a first step in the data revolution that we believe is paramount to Africa's development, and it can't come soon enough.