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Djibouti: Newsline

Girls in rural villages missing out on education

Fatouma, 9, wants to keep going to school even when she grows up.

DJIBOUTI, June 2005 – Aisha Mohamed Hassan may not know how old she is, but she knows how much she likes school. One of very few girls to go to school in the remote rural village of Koutabouye, this six- or seven-year-old is still in her first year and, if given a chance, would certainly like to finish her education. During the summer holidays, she attends with some other children of varying ages the madrassa or Koranic school where she memorizes verses of Koran.

Koutabouye is situated in the southern district of Dikhil, which has the lowest school enrolment rates in the country. Some three years ago, the World Bank financed the building of the village’s only school but the absence of latrines and drinking water has deterred parents from enrolling their daughters. To date, only 16 girls go to class, compared to 120 boys.

Also attending summer Koranic classes is Fatouma, a second-year student, from the nearby village of Asseyla. “I want to keep going to school when I grow up,” she says. Fatouma is only in Koutabouye for the summer break. She is staying with relatives because her father, like many others, leaves the village during the dry summer season to look for grazing sources for his cattle. In Fatouma’s school, girls’ enrolment is also an issue. There are 13 girls only in her class, and “beaucoup de garçons.” She doesn’t know why there are so few girls; it is true that at nine it’s difficult to understand the sort of constraints – economic, social and cultural – that can stand in the way of girls having an education.

Such constraints are so numerous and at times so difficult to address. While in the capital Djibouti City and most large districts sending girls to school is common, the further away one goes inland the more stark reality gets. But the one reality throughout is that of poverty. Djibouti’s human development index ranks it 154 th out of 177 countries and makes it the worst performer in Arab states. Its human poverty index places it in the 55 th position among 95 developing countries for which the index has been calculated, and 42 per cent of its population live in extreme poverty. The figures are alarming and nowhere is their impact more felt than in the rural areas.

© UNICEF/2005/Mekki
Poverty and harsh living conditions in villages like Koutabouye stand in the way of girls' education.

The burden of poverty is felt by all, but it is often women and girls who bear its brunt the most. While school-age girls in Koutabouye are kept away from school because of the lack of latrines and drinking water, their peers in other, equally barren, villages are deprived of their right to an education because they have to help their mothers with the daily tasks of fetching water and firewood, often having to walk long distances in the scorching heat to do so. It is difficult to find time or energy for school after that. Girls are also the ones who end up staying at home when their parents cannot afford to send all their children to school, often opting for sending the boys instead.

Lack of schools is another issue. Because outside of the capital there is only one secondary school per district, parents sometimes see no point in sending their daughters to primary school if they know beforehand that they will not be able to finish their education.

Maybe less determining, but equally damaging for girls, are such factors as female genital mutilation, which can cause girls to miss school repetitively and to eventually drop out, and early marriage, which turns girls into women with different priorities and obligations.

Yet despite this gloomy picture there is still cause for optimism. After all, Djibouti has made significant strides over the past few years. Reforms launched in 1999 to revamp the education sector have led to an increase in enrolment rates from 34 per cent to 54 per cent. But in the absence of viable population data – there has been no census since 1983 – figures are to be looked at with caution. While the government estimates the population at 630,000, the United Nations gives an estimate of 500,000, which would raise the enrolment rate to up to 80 per cent. Yet disparities between regions remain and access to education varies even from one village to the other.

As for Koutabouye, things may not stay this way for very much longer. The local school is one of three others targeted by an inter-Agency project involving UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the US Agency for International Development and Save the Children – along with national education authorities and members of the civil society – to improve the school environment and thus make schools attractive for girls. The project is still in its early phases: the target schools have been selected and visited by the participating agencies. The next step is to assess the situation of these schools, estimate the number of girls who are missing out on education and decide what kind of interventions are needed. Maybe Aisha and many like her will get that chance after all.



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