Gender equality is a fundamental human right. It plays a significant role in reducing poverty in developing nations while promoting improved health, education, and the wellbeing of all citizens.
Women in sub-Saharan Africa are traditionally valued for child-bearing, agricultural and food production, and domestic activities within the household. Because young women contribute to the household in these ways, it is typically not considered beneficial to invest in a young girl’s education.
Across the region, 9 million girls between the ages of about 6 and 11 will never go to school. This compares to 6 million boys (UIS data). The gender disparity in education between girls and boys is troublesome and it starts as soon as young girls begin primary school.
Why is education important for women in sub-Saharan Africa?
One simple word: Empowerment. Once a young woman attains an education, she finds her voice, becomes capable of making better informed decisions for herself and considers herself of equal value within the community. This decreases the risk of domestic violence, makes her less vulnerable to health risks, protects her from early marriage and pregnancy, reduces child mortality and strengthens household earnings.
What common barriers do girls face in the fight to attain an education?
Common challenges girls face include financial barriers, gender-based violence, discrimination inside and outside the learning environment, inadequate facilities and other gender-based norms
Costs such as tuition, school materials, transportation, uniforms, and food deter parents from enrolling children in school. But there are significant indirect costs as well since enrollment in school will negatively affect a girl child’s contributions to caregiving, household chores and income. Due to unequal gender norms in traditional homes, parents tend to favor their boys’ education over their girls’.
Gender-Based Violence and Discrimination Within the Learning Environment
Young women make up two-thirds of the global illiterate population and about 29 million live in sub-Saharan Africa (UIS. UNESCO, 2015).
Due to cultural stereotypes on how young girls should be raised in their homes and school, and perform in the professional field, girls are held to lower standards in the classroom. In particular, gender-biased teachings are seen in courses involving mathematics and science. This bias against young girls contributes to significant drop-out rates and low engagement and participation in the classroom and co-curricular clubs. Psychologically, young girls’ mental health deteriorates when they are anxious, cannot concentrate in the classroom, and have a sense of low self-esteem because of sexual and verbal abuse, and exploitation by their classmates and school staff (UNICEF, 2010). Girls with disabilities also experience higher rates of gender-based violence and face barriers in assessing, escaping, and reporting it. (Handicap International 2015).
Some girls miss up to 20% of the school year and risk higher drop-out rates due to the stigma attached to menstruation and lack of sanitary products.
In some African regions, schools don’t have toilets or access to safe water which adds to girls’ challenges. The lack of menstrual hygiene education, sanitary pads, safety, privacy, and sanitary facilities negatively affects girls’ wellbeing, health, and school attendance.
Other Unequal Gender-Based Norms
Cultural and religious beliefs in sub-Saharan Africa pull young girls into early marriages and pregnancies and are strong contributing factors to girls’ low educational attainment. The lack of health information about a woman’s reproductive system, family planning, birth control, and health services and support also contribute to early pregnancies.
Early marriages and pregnancies are known as the key drivers of mortality and morbidity rates of adolescents and girls under the age of five. According to Global Partnership for Education (2018), “there is a 7% chance in reducing early marriage when a girl stays in school up to secondary school and this increases for each additional year in secondary education.”
While all children in developing nations face learning hurdles, the hurdles are particularly steep for young girls in Africa.
Implement after school mentorship programs to cultivate leadership and life skills of young women.
Recruit, motivate and retain female teachers. Female educators serve as positive role models to girls in the classroom and encourage them to continue with their studies.
Raise awareness about the gender disparity and sensitivity in young girls’ education by not only engaging students, but their communities, families and local leaders.
By Ballaion Cadet-Joram
AOEF Youth Advisory Council Chair
September 8, 2020