Keep­ing girls in school

The gen­der gap has nar­rowed, but progress is start­ing to stall

Africa Renewal - - Front Page - By Franck Ku­wonu

Bright-eyed and clever, a young girl from a small vil­lage in Malawi shares her wish for a bet­ter life. From her con­fines, up early in the morn­ing, clean­ing and cooking, eat­ing last, mar­ry­ing young, she has lit­tle chance for school, much less a fu­ture with a ca­reer.

“Be­cause I’m a girl, I have dreams,” she says thought­fully. “When I grow up, I want to be a doc­tor, a judge or maybe a sci­en­tist.” With an ed­u­ca­tion, she concludes, she could help her sis­ters and friends. “And to­gether we could show every­body how girls make the com­mu­nity stronger and richer!

“Give me a chance,” she says dis­arm­ingly, “and I’ll take it from there.” The three-minute video, pro­duced by Plan In­ter­na­tional, a UK-based global ad­vo­cacy group on chil­dren, tells the story of the near-in­sur­mount­able chal­lenges fac­ing school-age girls in the world’s poor­est re­gions, in­clud­ing many parts of sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. Her story mir­rors that of mil­lions of girls around the world whose prospects are se­verely limited be­cause they can­not fin­ish school.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2014 Mil­len­nium Devel­op­ment Goals Re­port, a United Na­tions an­nual re­port that tracks progress to­wards achiev­ing the MDGs, some 33 mil­lion chil­dren in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa were out of school in 2012. For ex­am­ple, Nige­ria had about 5.5 mil­lion girls out of school and Ethiopia had more than a mil­lion. While the sit­u­a­tion varies from coun­try to coun­try and be­tween ru­ral and ur­ban ar­eas, over­all 56% of the out-of-school chil­dren are girls.

Progress is stalling

There is no doubt that a con­certed global push for uni­ver­sal ed­u­ca­tion has nar­rowed the gen­der gap in pri­mary school enrolment be­tween 2001 and 2008, says UNESCO, the UN agency on ed­u­ca­tion and cul­ture. Over the past seven years, how­ever, the gap ap­pears to have re­mained the same, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. Per­va­sive poverty and per­sis­tent cul­tural at­ti­tudes, in­clud­ing forced early mar­riages and child labour, con­tinue to be the main ob­sta­cles to girls’ ed­u­ca­tion in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa.

Other ob­sta­cles, ac­cord­ing to the Plan In­ter­na­tional re­port, in­clude the cost of ed­u­ca­tion, child pros­ti­tu­tion, early preg­nan­cies and long dis­tances to schools. “Poverty lies at the heart of many of the chal­lenges that hin­der girls’ ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion. The pres­sures of poverty mean that par­ents must con­stantly make de­ci­sions about how to uti­lize ex­tremely limited re­sources and how best to pro­vide a se­cure fu­ture for their fam­ily,” the re­port notes.

Poor fam­i­lies, mostly in ru­ral ar­eas, are forced to send boys to school while keep­ing the girls at home help­ing with chores in the be­lief that chores are suf­fi­cient lessons for girls to learn how to keep a fam­ily. Even as more girls are en­rolled in pri­mary schools, their chances of drop­ping out con­tinue to be greater than boys’. Girls may be with­drawn from school by par­ents for rea­sons linked not only to costs but to un­wanted preg­nan­cies from rape at the hands of male teach­ers or other male adults in their com­mu­ni­ties.

As part of the MDGs and the Ed­u­ca­tion for All agenda, a mix of aware­ness cam­paigns and pol­icy mea­sures has in­creased en­rol­ments and nar­rowed the gen­der gap in sev­eral African coun­tries in­clud­ing Burk­ina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Sene­gal, Sey­chelles, Tan­za­nia, The Gam­bia and Uganda. Spe­cific poli­cies ini­ti­ated more than two decades ago and car­ried into the 21st cen­tury helped to im­prove the num­bers con­sid­er­ably. Th­ese poli­cies in­cluded re­duc­ing or com­pletely elim­i­nat­ing school fees in public in­sti­tu­tions in im­pov­er­ished ar­eas, mak­ing school en­vi­ron­ments gen­der-sen­si­tive, such as as­sist­ing preg­nant stu­dents and in­creas­ing the num­ber of fe­male teach­ers.

How­ever, the im­pact of th­ese poli­cies seems to have hit a wall. Rea­sons be­hind the de­clin­ing enrolment for girls, ac­cord­ing to UNESCO, in­clude sag­ging global eco­nomic growth, in­creased emer­gency sit­u­a­tions

which re­sult in di­vert­ing al­ready scare re­sources away from mid- and longterm in­vest­ments in ed­u­ca­tion, pro­lif­er­a­tion of con­flicts (most out- of-school chil­dren live in con­flict ar­eas) and rapid pop­u­la­tion growth.

Free and safe for girls

There is a need, there­fore, to de­vise stronger poli­cies to re­vive progress. UNESCO and UNICEF are rec­om­mend­ing that coun­tries fo­cus on “broad in­vest­ment to strengthen and ex­pand ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems, a sharp fo­cus on im­prov­ing the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion on of­fer and tar­geted in­ter­ven­tions for the chil­dren who are the very hard­est to reach.”

In a joint re­port re­leased in early 2015 ti­tled, “Fix­ing the Bro­ken Prom­ise of Ed­u­ca­tion for All—Find­ings from the Global Ini­tia­tive on Out- of-School Chil­dren,” the two agen­cies said the pri­or­ity should be to en­sure that even the most vul­ner­a­ble and dis­ad­van­taged girl has ac­cess to a school close to home—a school that meets her most ba­sic needs for safety, pri­vacy and clean­li­ness.

How­ever, there is more to girls’ ed­u­ca­tion than get­ting them to school, says Re­becca Winthrop, the direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Uni­ver­sal Ed­u­ca­tion at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, a lib­eral US think-tank. She sug­gests shift­ing the fo­cus on learn­ing for both girls and boys: “One fun­da­men­tal step for the ed­u­ca­tion com­mu­nity is to re­fo­cus en­ergy on girls’ and boys’ learn­ing and to move be­yond the goal of just get­ting stu­dents in school,” she says, adding, “We know that if girls are build­ing skills and knowl­edge, fam­i­lies are more likely to keep them in school.” This is be­cause th­ese fam­i­lies can see the ben­e­fit of school­ing.

A Global Cam­paign for Ed­u­ca­tion spon­sored by the UK char­ity, Ox­fam, pre­viewed th­ese re­marks: “Schools should be free and safe for girls. This will en­sure that girls have the op­por­tu­nity to stay and learn in school up to pri­mary com­ple­tion and progress to sec­ondary and ter­tiary lev­els.”

In a pref­ace to the cam­paign’s re­port, Graça Machel, the widow of for­mer South African Pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela, wrote: “The time for warm words is over. The time for ac­tion is now. Women and girls de­serve and de­mand their rights.”

Panos/Sven Torfinn

Young women study in a science lab­o­ra­tory at Mo­gadishu Uni­ver­sity, So­ma­lia.

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