UN works to boost girls' educations

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 When she is about 10 years old, she is withdrawn because the father has promised her to another family in the community.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 Once a girl is withdrawn from school, she often doesn't come back.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?

CM: Some are linked to boarding schools, where girls go into boarding schools to give them space. With others, girls are allowed to remain in the school in the afternoon when school ends to finish their homework and be given support, so that when they go home and don't have time for schoolwork, they know that they've finished it. In some community schools, dialogue is created between the parents and the school. Once parents understand, they begin to be much more sensitive to giving girls space within the household to study.

GP: So, you are focusing on creating space not fighting the reality that domestic duties are a priority for many girls, especially in rural areas?

CM: It's about mitigation versus transformation. In some societies, we actually see the education of girls transforming the whole society, even in terms of girls delaying early marriage or in terms of pregnancy, health and getting jobs. In other societies, it's more of a mitigation, but that mitigation can also build a critical mass and become transformative. It's important to pull the society along. When you pull the society along, it's much slower because you need to negotiate those norms, those values girls must have and those cultural practices they must master — like cooking and looking after children — because they have to get married.

Fathers can be the best champions of these girls, once they understand the economic value of educating that girl, and the mothers want to give their daughters opportunities they never had. In a lot of countries where girls have learned to read and write, they actually teach their parents and siblings who are not in school. Then the mother, who may be selling goods, begins to understand how to use money because the daughter taught her how to read, write and do some arithmetic. This mother begins to understand the value of education, even for herself, and begins to protect the girl's education.

GP: Poverty is a key obstacle to girls' education, but girls' education is seen as a powerful tool to fighting poverty. What can be done?

CM: It's definitely a vicious cycle. There is a feminization of poverty. You find that the greatest numbers of the poor are women and girls, just like in many ways there's also a feminization of HIV/AIDS where for every adolescent boy who is HIV positive, there will six, or even eight, girls who are HIV positive. As we are speaking right now, we have around 72 million children out of school globally. It's really worrisome. However, 10 years ago, we had over 110 million children out of school. The majority of those children are out of school because of poverty, and the majority of those out of school because they are poor are girls. When the family decides who gets to go to school because they have to pay fees, they will ensure that the boys go to school but not the girl. Or when a family is poor and the mother has to also find some work and the father is out on the farm, someone has to look after the younger kids. It is the girl who does that. In a lot of poor households, girls, even as young as 8 or 9, also become domestic workers in towns or in households of higher income. That again makes it more difficult for them to access education and doesn't really pull the family out of poverty.

GP: So, how do we break that cycle?

CM: Huge campaigns for every child to go to school, where the school fees are completely abolished by governments as in Kenya, Malawi or Uganda, have really brought huge numbers of kids into classrooms. The negative is that we have a lot of schools in Africa where there are 100 kids in a classroom, but we don't have enough teachers, let alone qualified teachers. That is a tension between access and quality. All those elements critical for the quality of education that would retain the kid in school have to be put in place.

But families are starting to see education as a route to economic independence for the child and later for themselves because that child can wind up looking after the family. Families are starting to understand that educating girls can bring remittances. Studies done in the Caribbean show it's mostly women sending huge amount of remittances home and actually feeding their families. Educate a woman and you are educating the whole society. It's not just a saying. There is evidence. Just look at the educated women in Africa and the extended families they are supporting.

GP: How then do we improve quality to keep girls in school?

CM: You need a holistic approach, which looks at children's rights and principles like child-centeredness, meaning the teacher moves away from dominating and becomes a facilitator. Those methods attract girls much more than authoritarian method because girls are more into discussing and interacting. We are really encouraging that child-centered, girl-friendly way of teaching. And we have found that when girls benefit, boys also benefit. Girl's education does not marginalize boys. It actually brings them into the fold.

If you look at why girls are excluded, it is not just excluding them from school because of poverty, social norms or cultural practices. This exclusion continues within the school environment, this idea that girls should listen and not talk. Quality of education depends on the learning environment. The learning environment is really critical for girls to stay in school and perform. They need to feel safe from bullying — physical and psychological — and sexual harassment. The learning environment needs to create space for girls to develop self-esteem and see they are of value, first and foremost to themselves, and then to society.

In countries like Kenya or South Africa, we talk of safe schools, where even in a very poor, slum area, the school makes use of the community and the both get committed to keeping girls safe. If any girl is abused, that abuser is not just answerable to the school but the whole community. When girls walk to and from school, some communities have guardians or adults walking with them. That works.

GP: What do we mean when we talk about gender parity versus gender equity in classrooms? Why is gender equity now such a priority?

CM: Over the last 10 years, we have so focused on parity that we have not paid enough attention to equity. With gender equity, you are really looking at fairness, discrimination, social norms and cultural practices. Gender parity, which is focusing on the numbers and enrollment, is important as one of the first steps on the road towards gender equality. But we need to address issues of discrimination, stigma and opportunities for empowerment. Sometimes, we adults push aspirations in terms of how this educated girl can be of use to society but we forget that before girls can have aspirations for society, they must have aspirations for themselves. They have to develop self-esteem and self-worth.

To be robbed of education because you are a girl means you have been robbed of a right. Our focus now is accelerating momentum and moving beyond this gender parity, which is important but not enough, to really focus on gender equity so that there is empowerment. That's the vision: empowerment.

The U.N. Girls' Education Initiative is an global partnership aimed at achieving gender equality and universal primary school education by 2015. The Education for All Global Monitoring Report says an additional $16 billion in annual funding would be needed to achieve universal primary school education by 2015.