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The Crisis of Girls’ Education in West and Central Africa

Obstacles to securing the right to education amidst violence, gender expectations & colonial legacy By Eliza Kravitz |

In May 2015, an international conference in Oslo, Norway opened for endorsement the Safe Schools Declaration, an inter-governmental political commitment to strengthen education in times of conflict. By declaring the need to “promote and protect the right to education and to facilitate the continuation of education” in even the most dire “situations of armed conflict,” the declaration brought to light the need to protect education as a fundamental human right, no matter the circumstances. While they are not legally bound to action, countries who endorse the declaration have often adopted policies that privilege education as a reflection of their agreement with the declaration’s framing of education as a crucial human right. Among the ninety-six countries that have endorsed the declaration since its publication are most of the countries in the West and Central Africa. Nonetheless, West- and Central-African countries continue to have some of the lowest educational attainment rates in the world. Critically, girls’ educational attainment is even more worrisome than boys’ in the region. The crisis in girls’ education in West and Central Africa is a function not only of violence within educational institutions but also of other factors, such as child marriage, menstrual stigma, colonial legacies, and employment practices.

The prevalence of violence in and around schools in West and Central Africa emphasizes the need for initiatives like the Safe Schools Declaration. In June 2019, violence in schools accounted for the lack of attendance of 1.91 million students in the region. While direct attacks on education facilities are common, other students feel obligated to avoid school due to threats of aggression, attacks on faculty, or violent conflict in the surrounding areas. Since girls are perceived as weaker than their male counterparts, parents typically keep daughters home from school before sons during conflict-ridden periods. School-related violence, as a result, widens the gender disparity in education. Ironically, children who are not enrolled in school are more susceptible to violence; data suggest that children staying home are more likely to be forcefully recruited into military service or to become victims of child trafficking. Aside from violence that affects all students, girls face additional forms of physical abuse within and outside of school settings. While gender-based violence in and around schools deters girls’ attendance, staying at home increases their vulnerability to sexual assault, especially if they are unmarried. Examining the role of violence in education, therefore, reveals a complex and intertwined array of factors which ultimately determine girls’ precarious or even nonexistent school attendance.

Nicholas Alipui, senior visiting scholar at the Yale University MacMillan Center and former Director of Programmes for United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), echoes the sentiment that there are a multitude of limitations affecting girls’ educational prospects in West and Central Africa. “There is an escalating framework of handicaps and deprivations--multiple and overlapping deprivations--in the background that determine[s] even the decision to send a girl to school,” Alipui says. An illustrative example is child marriage. A deeply-ingrained social practice, child marriage traps 38.6% of girls in a lifelong contract before they turn 18, according to a 2017 study by the World Bank. The study, which examines the health, economic, and personal impacts of child marriage and girls’ education, finds that increasing rates of girls’ completion of secondary school would improve the above categories more than any other relevant societal change. The implication of this finding is that girls’ current lack of educational attainment is at the root of their health, economic, and personal challenges. Furthermore, the study illustrates the interconnectedness of child marriage and girls’ education, a troubling link that portends the challenges in dismantling girls’ low educational attainment. Families look for husbands for their young daughters for a variety of reasons, ranging from familial relations in the community to protection from sexual violence to fear of the social stigma associated with premarital pregnancy. Similar to the effects of violence on girls’ education, families’ expectations for their daughters may be satisfied only by marriage, which drives them away from school prematurely.

Beyond the external factors deterring girls from pursuing their education, menstruation plays a critical role in making girls feel unwelcome at school. The explicit and implicit negative beliefs surrounding menstruation in many West- and Central-African communities manifest in ignorance about periods and a web of societal forces marginalizing menstruating girls from everyday activities. Sophie Ascheim ‘22, producer of the Oscar-winning documentary Period. End of Sentence., explains that the “overwhelming social stigma” surrounding periods has its foundations in religious texts such as the Old Testament and the Quran, which “demonize the biological process” of menstruation and even argue that “anything [menstruating girls] touch, they taint.” The resultant “taboo topi[c]” leads to unaddressed needs and girls “bleeding in silence.” Stemming largely from menstrual stigma, hygienic pads are often inaccessible, and, since schools frequently lack sufficient gender-segregated washrooms, girls cannot change whatever materials they are using (often rags or recycled newspapers) while they are in school. Menstruating commonly leads, as a result, to monthly absenteeism for girls. Illustrating the gravity of the situation, Alipui posits that if there were “one magic bullet” to address girls’ education in West and Central Africa, he believes it would be to bolster “menstrual hygiene management.”

In discussions about education in West and Central Africa, the legacy of European colonization is unavoidable. During the colonial era in West and Central Africa, European colonists instituted education systems for the inhabitants of their colonies, tainting education as an oppressive Western entity. The fact that education is a vestige of colonialism can deter school participation in and of itself; specific aspects of colonial education, however, also affect current school attendance, especially for girls. Female Protestant missionaries, for instance, often tried to reconstruct the female cultural identity through schooling in British colonies in West and Central Africa, leading to girls’ forced surrendering of female identities constructed in their local communities. Weariness of this assimilationist legacy can factor into contemporary families’ decisions to keep their daughters out of school.

The use of French as the language of instruction in former French colonies in West and Central Africa also inhibits participation in education, especially for girls. These colonies, which have many of the lowest female literacy rates in the world, contain relatively large Muslim populations, yet the notion that Muslim communities oppose girls’ education is far from the truth. West- and Central-African Muslims had a Quranic school system in place already at the time of French arrival, rather, and they are more likely to oppose coed, Christian schooling than Africans who subscribe to indigenous religions. Additionally, French colonizers mandated schooling instructed entirely in French, and this practice persisted for at least 20 years after each country gained independence, a figure that exceeds that of nearby nations ruled by other colonial powers. While most schools in former French colonies now conduct primary education in indigenous African languages, French remains the primary language of secondary school instruction. As a national language and the language of many well-paying jobs, knowledge of French is deemed more crucial for boys than for girls. French as the language of instruction, therefore, is a barrier to girls’ education because girls’ abstinence from attending French schools (often the only available secondary schools) is a strategy for families to resist assimilation to Western society without risking their economic well-being. The examples of British and French colonial practices provide insight into the ways in which Western legacies in education, while affecting all children in formerly-colonized states in West and Central Africa, disproportionately limit girls’ educational successes.

UNICEF, auxiliary schools, and mentorship programs are all working to improve girls’ education. UNICEF offers measures both that improve the existing educational framework, such as facilitating teacher safety training, and that provide alternatives to conventional public schools. For example, UNICEF piloted a radio-education program for children who cannot physically attend school and constructed temporary community learning centers where volunteers teach basic skills in the students’ native languages. Other mentorship programs have founded auxiliary schools with non-traditional elements, which have proved successful in increasing educational attainment for girls. Schools that integrate parental involvement and take-home food and water rations, for instance, have helped keep girls in school. Other programs have instituted curricula that revolve around Quranic studies in order to provide alternatives to the colonial model of education. Finally, incorporating mentorship for girls deemed at risk of dropping out has proved to be an effective mechanism for narrowing the discrepancy between male and female educational attainment.

While many of UNICEF’s and other organizations’ programs have proven effective, the spot-relief efforts approach of humanitarian organizations raises questions. How do their educational interventions differ from Western colonizers’ interventions, especially in terms of deterring girls from attending school in the long-term? How does UNICEF integrate its spot-relief programs into nation-wide governmental education policies? Alipui addresses these concerns, noting that, while both UNICEF and colonizers are foreign entities intervening to offer education services, “the motivations are completely different.” He explains UNICEF’s commitment to provide “evidence-based,” “human rights”-based, and “needs-based” solutions. “Essentially,” he says, “the organization pushes for equitable, gender-balanced, and childs’ rights-based solutions.” Additionally, UNICEF interacts closely with local and national governments to achieve a cultural sensitivity that colonial regimes lacked entirely. Alipui concludes, “[UNICEF’s] organizing principles and the fact that UNICEF would work directly with governments and local authorities to create its joint programs of cooperation, rather than go in and implement its own UNICEF projects… sets it completely apart from what we know is the characteristic of any colonial model.”

Alipui makes clear, in other words, that UNICEF aims for a complete overhaul of the vast and complex web of factors that harm girls’ educational prospects in West and Central Africa: local violence, gender expectations and stigmatization, and colonial legacy, among others. With such a daunting task at hand, it is imperative to support efforts by UNICEF and other organizations that work to allow children, especially girls, to claim their human right to education.

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