Addis Ababa — While in the last decade an additional 52 million of sub-Saharan Africa’s children enrolled in primary schools, with girl’s enrolment increasing from 54 percent to 74 percent, a large majority of girls – 16 million – are still being denied access to education.
This is according to a report by Plan International titled “Progress and Obstacles to Girls’ Education in Africa” released in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Oct. 11 – the first International Day of the Girl Child.
The report says that school enrolment in Sub-Saharan Africa remains the lowest in the world, with boys being more likely to attend school than girls.
It warns that if the situation does not change immediately, the Millennium Development Goal to achieve universal primary education by 2015 will not be reached. (The MDGs are a series of development and anti-poverty targets agreed by U.N. member states in 2000.)
Luther Anukur, deputy regional director of Eastern and Southern Africa for Plan International, told IPS that culture was one of the root causes of the problem: “We have to engage with communities to discuss the issue of girls not attending school.”
Several factors are preventing girls from studying, such as the cost of education, violence in schools, or families that prefer to send their sons to school instead of their daughters.
The report states that while many countries on the continent have national policies guaranteeing free primary education, the reality for children and their parents is very different.
“Whilst official school fees may have been abolished, many schools continue to charge other fees, such as for enrolment or examinations. Added to the costs of uniforms, books, transport, stationary and other ‘hidden costs’ of education, sending a child to school remains a significant financial investment for families,” the report states.
Early marriage and pregnancy is another crucial reason for girls dropping out of school. In Uganda, Guinea-Bissau and Liberia, almost 60 percent of school-going girls halted their studies because of early pregnancies, according to the report. And in countries such as Niger, Chad and Mali, two-thirds of girls are married by age 18.
Isabel* is a 19-year-old girl from Mozambique who has already been married twice, and was recently forced by her family into a third marriage with an older man. She has no education or diploma, and depends solely on her family.
“They warned that if I defied their word, they would chase me away with (my two) kids. Because I am not employed, I was obliged to face this new challenge,” she told Plan International.
Fifteen-year-old Latifa* from Ethiopia did stand up to her family when her stepfather wanted to marry her off to a 40-year-old ex-soldier. It was not easy for Latifa to challenge her family as she was subjected to severe harassment. She told Plan International: “When it became too much to bear, I ran off to live with an aunt 60 kilometres away.” Raising funds for school fees has been difficult for her, but with a part-time job at a hair salon she is managing.
But many girls like Latifa end up in transactional sex relationships to cover school fees or to purchase basic but unaffordable necessities such as soap, food and clothes, according to the report.
The International Day of the Girl focuses on girls such as Isabel and Latifa, but men and boys will also have to play their part, Anukur said. “The decision whether a girl can go to school is mostly made by men. So we will target families that send their girls to school, so that they can become role models for the community.”
While Africa is poor, governments use this argument sometimes for their failure to take responsibility for the situation, Anukur said. He argued that the continent was not short of resources.
“It’s all about how these resources are used. Governance is a big issue in Africa; it is important that governments are committed to change.”
Professor Jean-Pierre Onvehoun Ezin, the African Union (AU) Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology, told IPS that the organisation was committed to ensuring that girls in Africa grow up safely with the opportunity to reach their fullest potential.
“Because they are both young and female, girls more than any other group are marginalised, exploited and abused.” He added that ensuring girls reach their full potential “is not just a moral obligation, but the most powerful solution we know of to eliminate poverty.”
Ezin told IPS that while policies were good on paper, implementing them remained an obstacle on the continent.
“As an organisation or an institution alone, you can speak a lot and loud, but you won’t make a change by yourself.”
The AU commissioner believes that basic education is the responsibility of individual countries.
“Civil society, NGOs and governments have to work together to push education policies,” he said.