Millions of girls remain out of school

The gender gap has narrowed, but progress is starting to stall
From Africa Renewal: 
Young women study in a science laboratory at Mogadishu University, Somalia. Photo: Panos/Sven Torfinn
Young women study in a science laboratory at Mogadishu University, Somalia. Photo: Panos/Sven Torfinn

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 long-term 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.” 

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