Global and continental research indicates that gender inequality in children’s education is still a big issue. According to UNESCO data, over 235 million children are out of school globally, with Africa having the highest rates of exclusion. This means that on my own continent alone, nine million primary aged girls are being left behind—a third more than boys. What’s more, a study by the African Union states that of the 75 percent of African girls starting school, only a fraction, or a mere 8 percent, graduate from secondary school. Across sub-Saharan Africa less than one-quarter of secondary school-aged girls are enrolled in secondary education and rates are nearly one-third lower in conflict-ridden countries. Sadly, the evidence is telling us that simply getting girls into primary school does not ensure that they complete their schooling in numbers, we need to do more to safeguard their futures. If we, as a global community, can successfully mobilise ourselves, the benefits would be multiple. As when girls receive a secondary school education they postpone marriage and childbirth, earning a greater living wage and being better placed to make informed life decisions. Having girls go through secondary school education reduces their chances of experiencing society’s social ills that come with being uneducated, such as poverty, and gender-based and sexual violence. Girls will not look at their relationships with men as a way of economic survival since they will be empowered. It is clear that economically dependent women are more susceptible to violence in relationships and do not have a voice and a choice to leave.
We at the Graça Machel Trust know that girls face a distinctive set of barriers to learning, especially when they reach post-primary levels of education, such as lack of financial resources, sexual abuse, poor hygiene and unsafe school environments. Until now, education initiatives have not been multi-dimensional enough and are still found wanting in relation to the competencies they deliver. Most are still focused on the narrow mainstream educational skills of literacy and numeracy, leaving out personal, social and economic proficiencies that many women and girls need to survive and secure stable livelihoods. Moreover, if basic education is to be inclusive, the barriers that prevent enrolment and cause school dropout must be eliminated.
When the Graça Machel Trust initiated the Mara Out-of-School Children Programme in Tanzania, our first objective was to understand why children were not in school, why they did not attend—even when enrolled, and what led to them dropping out in their early years. A study by the Economic and Social Research Foundation, which profiled more than 20,000 out-of-school children, found that the main reasons girls and boys were dropping out of school were poverty, illness, disability and the death of parents, but that if families had to choose, they were more likely to cut back on educating a daughter than a son.
Although this initiative is in its early stages, I am already encouraged by our impact. Nearly 8,000 children have been enrolled in the Mara region, with the aim of ensuring that they remain in school beyond their primary years. Critical to the success of this programme will be designing an accelerated education programme, that will eventually integrate these children into the formal education system. We must also adapt an all-encompassing approach to education that broadens the range of competencies of girls, both to reduce the special risks they face during adolescence and to enhance their social and economic prospects as adults. The programme is also a major step in fighting child marriage and female genital mutilation which is prevalent in the region, and which form two of the biggest barriers that keep girls out of the classroom.
Education programmes that ensure girls be kept in school and where they receive more than just numeracy and literacy learning need to be implemented. We have to start shifting our thinking on the current educational approaches and focus on a holistic and multidimensional approach that considers the personal, social and economic competencies that many girls need to ensure a smooth transition to adolescence, and to a more economically secure womanhood.
All girls across Africa and the entire world need to know that they are valued, cherished and nurtured in equal measure to their brothers. At the same time, they need equal access to quality education, this will enable them to realise their full potential and pursue lifelong learning opportunities to capitalise on the transformative power of education, not only to change themselves, but their communities and countries as well.