The biggest barrier to girls’ education

Rosey Ellum | Aug 13, 2012

At Womankind we believe that education is one of the most powerful ways to enable a woman to achieve her full potential.

We want to see every young woman obtain an education, yet you won’t find many of our projects focusing on education in the traditional way – for example, building classrooms or training teachers. But take a closer look. Our partners are working tirelessly to tackle the biggest barrier of all to girls’ education: the gender inequality that stops young women from accessing learning.

Helping girls stay in school in Ethiopia

In the small town of Dukem in Ethiopia, many girls are removed from school much earlier than their brothers. This is because their parents don’t see the value of educating girls, or because they want to keep their daughters safe from rape or abduction on the way to school and from harassment from teachers or peers at school. In this area of Ethiopia almost all girls experience genital cutting and 90% are married before they are 18 years old. Without an education, they continue to lack the skills, confidence and status needed to overcome poverty and reduce their vulnerability to violence.

Our partner, ICEDA, has been working with schools in Dukem to raise awareness amongst students, teachers and parents about the benefit of girls’ education and how traditional practices like forced marriage harm girls’ prospects. ICEDA use drama to communicate this message as one girl, Musina describes, “At school we openly discuss with our parents if they see this drama, especially around the traditional values which are difficult for our parents to talk about.” The number of female students returning to Dukem Junior School each year is increasing.

Changing attitudes to girls’ education in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, where women’s education was outlawed under the Taliban, it’s taking time to change attitudes. We work with the Afghan Women’s Resource Centre, who operate an Institute to offer vocational courses such as management and journalism. These courses and the support young women receive enhance their vocational skills and empower them to secure jobs or to go onto further educational opportunities.

The Institute is doing amazing work but young women can only take part in education if they are given the fundamental freedom to learn. This is where Humanitarian Assistance Women and Children in Afghanistan(HAWCA), who provide legal assistance to survivors of violence, come in.

Farida was eight years old when she was forcibly engaged to a 21 year-old man. He wanted her to leave education when she turned 12. “He said if I go to school he will kill me… he started to beat me… so I left school. For fear of this man, I stayed at home for three years doing nothing and wondering how I could return to school.”

Eventually Farida convinced her parents to allow her to attend a human rights course with HAWCA. One of their lawyers visited the man’s family to explain that the engagement could be legally broken because she was underage. “My lawyer and the centre helped me return to school and I have been advising other girls I meet to defend their rights like I have done.”

Supporting young women leaders in Zambia

In countries where girl’s attendance at school has more support, there are still great challenges holding bright young women back. In Zambia illiteracy is 15% higher amongst girls than boys aged 15-24 despite girls having a higher attendance rate than boys at primary level. Girls affected by violence at home or carrying additional burdens of cooking, cleaning and caring for siblings, are unsurprisingly falling behind, and their teachers are often comfortable with this being the norm.

The Zambia National Women’s Lobby are challenging this. Their Girls Leadership Clubs are raising the bar for young women in rural secondary schools. They use drama and discussion to build young women’s confidence to take up leadership positions in their schools and communities. “We want to show the boys we are capable of leadership” says one girl. When asked what they want to do when they leave school one group member says “I want to be President”, another “I want to become a medical doctor”.

Equal education is more than books and uniforms

As young people return to school or university this autumn we need to remember that many young women around the world won’t be going. In many cases, this won’t be because the schools aren’t there, but because violence, discrimination and harmful traditional practices are keeping young women at home.

For every young woman to be able to benefit from the commendable investments being made in education in developing countries, we also need to support the local women’s organisations that are tackling the gender inequality and violence that prevents girls from being able to realise their right to an education.

So, does Womankind work on women’s education? The answer is unequivocally “Yes”, it just might not look the way you expect it to.

Please make a donation today to help give girls equal access to education.

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