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UN works to boost girls' educations

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

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.