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UN works to boost girls' educations

Efforts concentrate on getting traditional Africa cultures to value education for females.

Guinea girls
Girls leave an elementary school in rural Guinea. (Anne Look/GlobalPost)

Photo caption: Girls leave an elementary school in rural Guinea. (Anne Look/GlobalPost)

DAKAR, Senegal — The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that nearly 72 million children of primary-school age are not in school. Almost half of those children are in sub-Saharan Africa, and more than half of them are girls.

The benefits of girl's education are myriad — increased economic development, safer childbirth, reduced risk of exploitation, lower infection rates of diseases like HIV/AIDS — but the obstacles are equally numerous and include poverty, sexual violence, early marriage, pregnancy and discrimination.

In the last decade, school enrollment of girls, and boys, has increased globally and the gender gap has closed in many regions, but experts say it's not enough. If more isn't done, as many as 56 million children could still be out of school in 2015, UNICEF says.

Marking its 10-year anniversary this May with a global conference in Dakar, the U.N. Girl's Education Initiative set its sights on promoting not just enrollment, but also gender equality, to see that more girls start and finish school around the world.

GlobalPost sat down with UNICEF senior education adviser, Changu Mannathoko, to talk about what can be done to overcome the cultural barriers keeping girls out of classrooms across Africa.

It's a battle, she said, that begins and ends with social norms.

GP: How does a social norm like early, forced marriage — girls being married off as young as 9 years old, still common in many parts of Africa — hinder girls' education?

CM: A girl will start school at 6 years old. When she is about 10 years old, she is withdrawn because the father has promised her to another family in the community. That terminates the girl's schooling. Once a girl is withdrawn from school, she often doesn't come back. Being married early also means she can get pregnant very quickly. But when you look at the female body, a girl, who is 13 or 14 years old, really isn't ready to bear a child. It endangers her health, and there are a lot of implications for that girl's life and the life of her family, and even the life of her child. If a child is born, that mom may not survive or she may survive but end up being very, very poor because she really doesn't have the education to have the independence to have her own livelihood.

The same goes for female genital cutting because in terms of the girl's health, it's very dangerous. For instance, in Ethiopia, girls end up with serious ailments because the cutting was not done properly and gets infected. These girls end up sick. Their whole lives are threatened. And, more often than not, these girls drop out of school.

GP: How big of a challenge is housework to keeping girls in school?

CM: For girls, social and cultural norms start with socialization and the division of labor within the family. Especially in poor households, girls end up doing a lot of housework and helping mothers with the children. In some communities, because of the huge demand for education, children go to school in shifts — some in the morning, some in the afternoon. You find that some of the girls who go to school in the afternoon, in the morning they fetch water, they fetch firewood, they cook. By the time it's mid-day and they have to go to school, you can imagine how tired these girls are.

GP: Are there strategies to help girls strike a balance between homework and housework?