Educating the Girl Child

 

“Without concerted action to improve the quality of education and to make more conducive environments for girls in schools, the bottlenecks to girls’ retention and transition will remain and the impact of education for those that are able to progress will be restricted,” observed Plan International in its “The state of girls’ education in Africa” report.

On October 11 this year, Africa joined the rest of the world in commemorating the International Day of the Girl Child. The commemorations were held under the theme “Innovating for Girl Education”. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon spoke of empowering the girl child through education.

“Empowering girls, ensuring their human rights and addressing the discrimination and violence they face are essential to progress for the whole human family. One of the best ways to achieve all of these goals is to provide girls with the education they deserve…

“To achieve meaningful results, we need fresh solutions to girls’ education challenges and we must heed the voices of young people,” he said. The right to education, which is a fundamental human right, is frequently denied to girls in many places across the world.

 “Efforts are still needed to get every girl … to school; increase the numbers and proportion of female teachers at every level; and ensure gender sensitivity in learning environments and in teaching and learning materials,” it was noted in the declaratin for “The Second Decade of Education for Africa (2006-2015)”. Most of the factors that militate against the girl child’s access to education are socio-cultural in nature.

Many countries on the African continent rank among the poorest in the world.  In Africa it has been noted that teacher shortages present huge challenges to provision of quality education, and the low proportion of female educators impacts on the protection and aspirations of girls more often than on boys.

Usually, girls “choose” to drop out of school, or are forced to quit school earlier than boys. Some families do not believe in the importance of educating girls, thinking that it would be better to invest in the education of the boy child.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stated that in Africa, when families have to make a choice – due to limited resources – of educating either a girl or a boy child, it is almost always the boy who gets the nod to continue with schooling.

Kakenya Ntaiya has said of this situation, “Girls face enormous challenges when it comes to accessing education. They are at high risk of rape and sexual harassment to and from school, they lack latrines and sanitary resources, they are forced to stay home during their menstrual periods.”

Sibusisiwe Khuzwayo adds to this, writing that: “Periods are already a stressful time in any girl’s life … and not having a pad when it is that time of the pad can give rise to serious problems.

“Girls are currently missing school simply because they are menstruating and wish to avoid embarrassment fear of being teased and cultural taboos.

“This inevitably leads to lack of education, unproductivity, hope and future for the girls in this country (South Africa).”

Plan International notes that barriers to girls’ progress within the schools system include gender-based violence, quality and availability of basic facilities, approaches and materials which reinforce discriminatory gendered norms, and formal and informal school policies that tend to favour males over females.

At home, girls find themselves burdened with domestic and commercial activities at an earlier age than boys. In many cases, girls stop going to school so that they work at home or in the informal sector to supplement household incomes.

<p> Today, more than 17 million children serve as domestic workers, comprising at least 30 per cent of the world's domestic labour force.  The International Labour Organisation estimates that 83 percent of domestic workers are women and girl

Girls often work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week: cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, and caring for other people’s children for little – if any – pay.

And in the course of domestic and informal work, they are prone to sexual abuse and violence, and other forms of denigration.

Early and unwanted pregnancies are more common among females who have dropped out of school for whatever reason as compared to girls who go through the education system up to tertiary level.

Professor Grace Offorma once observed that in Ethiopia, child brides face early pregnancy, responsibilities to their children and in-laws, and reticence of their husbands – who are usually much older – to let them out of the house. As such, schooling becomes out of the question.

She remarked that in Ethiopia girls are sometimes abducted for marriage when they are no more than eight-years-old.

In West Africa, they are recruited from poor rural families to work as domestic servants in coastal cities or even neighbouring countries.

In Africa, many girls are prevented from getting the education entitled to them because families often send their daughters out to work at a young age, so that they can get the additional income they may need to exist beyond subsistence level, and finance the education of sons.

Much needs to be done to change mindsets in communities so that boys and girls get equal opportunities.

“To change girls’ lives, to empower them, we need to think outside the box: We need to innovate. Innovation can mean using the power of technology to give girls a voice, or to teach them skills they can use to get jobs.

“But, it also means reaching out to new partners, using money and resources differently, mobilising communities, the media, and, most of all, engaging young people,” says Anju Malhotra, UNICEF’s Principal Advisor on Gender and Rights.

Plan International also emphasises on governments need to be held to account to commit to and implement sufficient, gender-sensitive budget allocations for education.  This should include specific allocations for girls’ education and financing formulas that prioritise this need. 

Article 21(1) of the African Charter on the Rights And Welfare Of The Child says states parties to the agreement shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate harmful social and cultural practices affecting the welfare, dignity, normal growth and development of the child and in particular: (a) those customs and practices prejudicial to the health or life of the child; and (b) those customs and practices discriminatory to the child on the grounds of sex or other status. 

African governments should take the role of keeping girls’ education high on the international and national agendas in meeting the MDG 2015 target and beyond. 

November 2013
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