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West & Central Africa

Barriers  |  Interventions  |  Reporter’s Notebook

“The future of every country lies in the hands of their youth. But the future of the young ones lies in the way the leaders of the country handle their education sector.”

Julie, 19, Nigeria

There is no clearer example of the magnitude of the challenge for achieving universal education and gender parity than in West and Central Africa. The net enrolment/attendance ratio was a mere 55 per cent in 2001. More than a third of the 21 countries worldwide with net primary school participation below 60 per cent are in this region. Fewer than two school-aged children in every five are in school in Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger.

In addition to having large numbers of children out of school, West and Central Africa has a yawning gender gap. Regionally, the gender parity index is 0.86, the largest gender gap among all regions. Of the 24 countries in the region, only five – Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Mauritania and Sao Tome and Principe – are likely to achieve gender parity in primary education by 2005. Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Niger have gender parity indices below 0.75.

High repetition and low retention rates are common throughout the region. For every 10 children enrolled in grade one in Chad, for instance, only 1 will make it to grade five without repeating. The failure of girls to complete primary school is evident when analysing gender parity in secondary education. Of the 10 countries in the world with the lowest gender parity index for secondary education, 7 are in West and Central Africa.


West and Central Africa has been ravaged by natural emergencies. Food insecurity has been exacerbated in the Sahel region because of drought and locust infestation. Severe food shortages have devastated Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria. The region has been further wracked by human-made disasters. Conflict has flared in different countries throughout the region, with Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone embroiled in or newly emerged from violent upheaval.

These four countries already had bleak educational achievements, which were further weakened by armed conflict. In Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, an estimated 1 million primary schoolchildren have had their education disrupted since the conflict began in 2002. In addition, a quarter of a million adolescents have missed out on finishing their secondary education. In Monrovia, Liberia, approximately 50,000 displaced people used schools as temporary shelters during 2003, destroying children’s opportunities for instruction.

Poverty and heavy external debt have also plagued the region. As a result, quality education has taken a major hit. Schools are burdened with teacher shortages, low salaries and few professional development opportunities for educators or administrators. Quality is also sacrificed because school capacity cannot keep pace with the demand brought on by the region’s high fertility rate and its rapid population growth.

Other factors that affect overall school enrolment and attendance are lack of birth registration and child labour. Children may be denied schooling because they have not been registered at birth. Where unregistered children are permitted to enrol, they will likely find themselves in overcrowded classrooms because governments could not accurately predict the number of school-age children without a more precise count of their child population. Children who are forced into the labour market usually do not go to school and, if they do go to class, are often exhausted and their academic performance suffers.

The burgeoning HIV/AIDS pandemic has also decimated school access and quality. There were 2 million young people between ages 15 and 24 who were living with HIV/AIDS in this region at the end of 2003. As in all of sub-Saharan Africa, the orphan population is growing, which translates into fewer children enrolled in school.

Drought, food shortages, armed conflict, poverty, lack of birth registration, child labour and HIV/AIDS contribute to low school enrolment and high dropout rates for all children. But they are especially devastating for girls.

With barely 50 per cent of girls in West and Central Africa in school, gender discrimination cannot be denied. Inequality is further exacerbated by cultural beliefs and traditions, such as early marriage and female genital cutting.

In Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Niger, more than 50 per cent of girls between the ages of 20 and 24 were married by age 18. Many girls are married by age 19. For instance, in Niger 60 per cent of girls between 15 and 19 years old are married. Not surprisingly, levels of education seem to correlate with the likelihood of early marriage. Again, looking at Niger, only 8 per cent of girls who attended secondary school and 40 per cent of girls who attended only primary school were married by age 19.24 Where girls are married off, parents often see little value in educating their daughters because they will leave their families of origin and will instead help support their husbands’ families.

Additionally, many mothers and fathers see education as not being relevant and fear that schooling will lead their children away from traditional rural life. Others are afraid that ‘western’ education will cause their children to abandon their religious beliefs and practices. In places where travel to and from school or the school itself is seen as dangerous, parents keep daughters home to ensure their girls are safe.

The failure to educate girls perpetuates a vicious cycle. The solutions to the punishing crises that afflict this region lie within universal education, yet those crises are the reasons cited for keeping girls from school.


Overall, West and Central Africa will not meet the gender parity goal by 2005. Yet, individual countries must be commended for their efforts to move further along the path of dismantling disparities between boys and girls.

Not surprisingly, the brutal civil war in the Central African Republic cut the net enrolment ratio to less than 40 per cent in 2003–2004 from 63 per cent in 1996. If there is any good news, however, it’s that the schools closed during 2002–2003 were all reopened in 2004. In many ways, this small victory in education can be built upon, giving hope that more children will soon be reached. However, the ratio of pupils to teachers ranges between 70 to 1 and 175 to 1 in the conflict zones. If teacher qualifications are taken into account, the ratio leaps to 525 students per qualified teacher. A single intervention that provided 5,300 wooden benches in 2004 allowed 21,200 children to sit comfortably in school. Previously, one bench was shared among seven or nine children. Along with such partners as French Cooperation and the World Bank, UNICEF has invested heavily in teacher training. An even greater first step towards getting children in school occurred when the government reduced school fees by two thirds in 2004.

Satellite schools in remote and rural areas have reached out to boys and girls in Burkina Faso, helping to reduce the gender gap by 3.2 points. Of the additional 18,600 children who now have access to education because of the new auxiliary schools, over 8,200 are girls. Some 40,000 students are expected to enrol in satellite schools, half of whom will be girls. Non-formal education centres have been erected to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills to young people who have aged out of traditional primary schools.

While Benin has seen a negligible increase in gender parity from a gender parity index of 0.77 in 2001 to a projected gender parity index of 0.78 at the end of 2005, it has spawned innovations to keep girls in school. ‘Girl-to-Girl’, for instance, is a mentor project that pairs older girls with younger female students who are at risk of dropping out. The programme is similar to an initiative in Senegal, where the Forum for African Women Educationalists encouraged youth participation to keep girls in school. The Senegal programme has been successful in protecting girls from early marriage by persuading parents to cancel arranged marriages and allow their daughters to remain in school.

Parent participation has been an effective tool for girls’ education. Community ownership of schools is effective in dispelling the sense that education is an export from the West rather than an integral part of the culture. In the Gambia, Mothers’ Clubs have been set up in many villages to sensitize parents to the importance of girls’ education and to help loosen the grip of harmful traditions that keep daughters out of school. The mothers also participate in income-generating activities, which are used to offset the hidden costs of the country’s free primary education – uniforms, supplies and school lunches. In an area that had 54 Mothers’ Clubs, the dropout rate has fallen from 29 per cent to 16 per cent since their inception in 2001.

The creation of child-friendly schools has also opened the doors for girls. A key to the success of child-friendly learning spaces in Nigeria has been active parent teacher associations. Innovative, welcoming primary schools have risen from the ashes of formerly neglected, dilapidated buildings as a result of active parent teacher associations and partnerships between the government, UNICEF and donors. Parents have pushed for beefed-up security, safe water, clean latrines, well-lit, ventilated and stimulating classrooms and well-stocked libraries. As a result, pupils are enrolling, attending and finishing a basic education. Results have been inspiring. Child-friendly schools continue to sprout as the model has become a national standard.

Herculean efforts to get children into school during or immediately after armed conflict are beacons of hope. Massive enrolment drives under gruesome conditions provide a powerful message about what is possible when people are committed to a goal. Back-to-school drives have taken place in the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, demonstrating the healing power of education.

Fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1998 and 2003 left over 3 million people dead, a number of civilian war victims not surpassed since World War II.25 In addition, one third of all children were involved in some form of soldiering, and there were countless reports of women and girls who were brutally raped. In spite of the atrocities inflicted on young people, more than 1,000 primary schoolchildren took their final exams in Bunia and Beni – a small step towards routine and normalcy.

On a larger scale, a ‘back-to-school’ campaign allowed 750,000 children in Liberia to resume their education in 2003 after 14 years of violent conflict. While far from ideal learning spaces, the response to the opening of the schools highlights the reality that the inability to provide optimum conditions is not a legitimate obstacle to education. Other back-to-school campaigns have reinforced the idea that a skeleton of a school is better than no school at all.

Water and sanitation are increasingly tools for gender parity. The water and sanitation sector has teamed up with education to get and keep children in school. Providing in-school meals and take-home rations, particularly for girls, also entices parents to send their children to classes. The Sahel Alliance for School Feeding, a partnership among governments, UNICEF and the World Food Programme, is helping to dismantle gender disparity and food insecurity through school canteens and take-home rations in nine countries. The cooperation among Cape Verde, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal, among others, is a noteworthy strength of the Alliance as countries pool resources and share expertise.

Reporter’s Notebook

Banjul to Sare Samba, Gambia – It took almost four hours to drive the 100 kilometres, navigating enormous potholes and long stretches of unpaved roads along the south bank of the Gambia River. The roadway weaved through traditional villages punctuated with adobe huts and humongous termite hills. The rugged terrain makes travel arduous and isolates people in the interior of this oddly-shaped country. The length of the country is 300 kilometers and its width averages about 35 kilometres. It winds its way up the river, totally surrounded by Senegal.

Sare Samba and the Lower River Division, Gambia – Here we meet with villagers, mostly mothers, to speak about girls’ education. Mothers’ Clubs work with village elders and teacher parent associations to cajole parents into sending both sons and daughters to school. The Kanyeleng women take centre stage in this process.

The Kanyeleng women are part of Gambia’s traditional communicators, including griots, praise singers and comedians, who entertain villagers and pass on tribal history and genealogies. Everyone meets regularly at the Bantaba, a space under a big tree, to chat, gossip and debate. Today the whole village has assembled here to greet us. The Kanyeleng women spontaneously perform a skit that teases parents who don’t send their daughters to school. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would buck these powerful advocates for girls’ education.

Enugu, Nigeria – I am more than three hours late for the group meeting with children. Scheduled to leave Abuja to arrive here on Friday morning, my flight was cancelled. Hopes of getting the 9:00 a.m. flight were dashed – the plane was two hours late and then made two unannounced stops en route from Abuja to Enugu, normally a one-hour trip.

I am whisked into a conference room upon my arrival at the office, where seven children, three parents/caregivers and four representatives of government and non-governmental organizations await. I am about to learn the stories of children and some adults who have benefited from a pro bono legal service supported by UNICEF since 2003.

The children begin to relate their horror stories: Amarachukwu, 8, was so badly burned by her father’s new girlfriend that the little girl has lost use of her hand. She had to drop out of school because her classmates teased her mercilessly. Samson, a short, spunky 11-year-old boy, complained he didn’t even have his tea on the day he was arrested on the way home from school. He was still in his uniform when the police dragged him away, he says. They had come for his mother, but when they couldn’t find her, they arrested him. Traumatized since the incident, Samson is still plagued by his initial fears, even though they turned out not to be true, that his mother had been killed. Finally, 21-year-old Nkeiruka, 15 at the time of arrest, and her mother, Monica, who had just been released from prison after spending more than five years on a trumped-up charge. According to them, an uncle reported that Monica had killed her newborn baby (who actually died in childbirth), but no proof was provided. Monica wept openly, recounting five years of lost opportunity for schooling. They are returning home to an uncertain and still somewhat suspicious and hostile environment.

Lagos, Nigeria – The city is teeming with energy. A short ride takes us to Ikoyi, a residential, green and seemingly serene part of town. Here, I meet Professor Sarah Oloko, an expert in child labour who has worked with UNICEF for many years. She explains the push factors that lead to children working as domestics – on the one hand, poverty, on the other, traditional practices… Parents may give their children away to people seen as role models – often a determination made merely on the basis of how a person is dressed, or if they live in a town as opposed to a village. Children are trafficked to work on commercial farms and plantations. Many wives of distinguished people are supplied with domestics, she says. Often employers promise that they’ll send the children to school, but never do….

Next, the Lagos State Agency for Mass Education. I sit in on a basic literacy class, which is being held in a small, cramped classroom. Young men and women sit among older adults of both sexes. When it’s finished, I meet with 20-year-old Daniel, who had stopped attending school in primary 2. He has worked for the past four years with a Lagos family from 5:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m., ironing, washing, opening the gate and various other tasks. His employer says that his salary is being paid into an account each month. Daniel seems unbothered that he has no proof that this is the case. He says, “If I went the way my mum was training me, I would not be in this position,” referring to her encouragement for him to continue school.

I spend the evening at the office of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking Persons, where I meet 40 girls who have been living at the agency the past two months.

Part of a convoy that had been intercepted by the police coming into Lagos from Niger State in the north of Nigeria – a 9 to 10 hour drive – they are believed to be a few of the many who are trafficked as sex workers, domestics or bonded labourers who hawk on the streets. Only one girl has been to school – the seven-year-old daughter of the alleged trafficker…. The trafficker, a ‘businesswoman’ who lives in Lagos, is alleged to be the ringleader of a syndicate that recruits children – mostly young girls between 8 and 13 years old from villages in Niger State – and bonds them to families in Lagos.

Dakar, Senegal – In the outskirts of the city, Mme Mbow, the principal of N’Diarème B Primary School, runs her school with undisguised pride. She has made it her personal mission to enrol every girl in the catchment area. The peaceful school seems like an oasis in a neighborhood overflowing with traffic and people hawking merchandise along the main road…. We are frequently interrupted by teachers dropping by to talk over the schedule, students needing a key or wanting to ring the bell after recess, and women from the mothers’ collective and associations coming to discuss different projects. While others might be nonplussed with the bustle, she seems perfectly serene. This is the school where UN Secretary General Kofi Annan launched the UN Girls’ Education Initiative, and Mme Mbow shows me a picture from the event (see photo below). She grabs a pen and jots the Secretary-General a note on the back of the photo, reminding him of his visit and hinting gently at a pledge he had made to support the school. I promise to hand-carry the letter to him as soon as I get back to New York.