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‘Scholarship Plus’ for Girls in Sub-Saharan Africa

Girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo attend a school that is participating in the scholarship program. Giving girls like these positive role models—a key element of the scholarship program—helps them broaden their view of their futures.

Mentors. Community involvement. Female role models. HIV/AIDS education. Those may not sound like parts of a typical scholarship program. But then, the African Girls Scholarship Program is not typical.

“I call it ‘scholarship plus’,” said May Rihani, senior vice president and director of the AED Center for Gender Equity. In addition to providing girls with money for school fees, supplies, books, uniforms, and sometimes even shoes, it was important that the program provide the girls with additional support, said Rihani, who has been working to improve girls’ education for 25 years.

The program began last fall and will last for five years in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. All told, the project will provide more than 80,000 one-year scholarships. Ideally, most of the girls who enter the program will remain part of it for five years, and receive five scholarships.

In order to stay in the program, girls must stay in school and do well. “We know a family’s economic conditions can be a large factor in whether or not girls stay in school.” Rihani said. “But there are also social and cultural issues that play into a family’s decision to allow their daughters to continue their education.”

For example, some girls get married and are forced to drop out of school. Others are required to stay home and care for an ailing adult in the household. That’s why the scholarship program provides so much more than just alleviating the economic burden. “We need to make it the community norm for families to keep their girls in school,” Rihani said.

Around the world the rates at which girls attend school decrease as the girls get older. In Rwanda, where these girls are going to school, 76 percent of the country's girls attend primary school, but only nine percent are enrolled in secondary school.

Community Involvement

Part of that process of normalizing girls’ education comes from the community, which is responsible for selecting which girls participate in the scholarship program. Only girls whose families are facing economic constraints in sending them to school are eligible to participate. In addition, communities may select girls that have only one parent, are orphans, or come from families where one or both parents are HIV/AIDS positive.

Community members also collaborate with local organizations that assist AED in implementing the program. The local organizations, the implementing partners, do more than just administer the scholarships, Rihani said. “They work with the schools, teachers, and communities to facilitate an enabling environment for the girls to succeed,” she said.

Mentors and Role Models

Additionally, women from the community are chosen to be mentors for the girls. These mentors take on different responsibilities in each country and community, but each is a woman who has some education and leadership skills, and is respected in her community.

In Ghana, for example, under the SAGE program, some mentors convinced parents to give girls at least an hour a day free of their household duties so the girls could study. They also helped parents set up a place in their house where both the girls and the boys in the family could do their homework.

Even with these interventions, girls still needed help thinking about how their education could pay off, said Rihani. “In our work in remote and rural areas of Africa, the AED field staff found that girls wanted to be either teachers or midwives, and even those options were a stretch for their imaginations,” she said. “We discovered that they didn’t have any other role models.”

A Rwandan scholarship recipient listens attentively as girls are encouraged to discuss their future aspirations. Research shows girls with more education are less likely to live in poverty and more likely to lead healthier and more prosperous lives.

So for every country, AED is producing a calendar that shows six successful women from urban areas and six from rural areas. These role models will be chosen by the communities and local organizations. “We will write the stories of these women, which will then become lessons in the local schools,” Rihani said. The women will also visit the schools to discuss “how they started, their journey from little girl to successful woman, and how education played a role.”

HIV/AIDS Education

Because HIV and AIDS are so widespread in Africa , it is critical to educate the girls, and the adults working with them, about the facts and myths of the pandemic. The highest rate of infection in sub-Saharan Africa is among girls between the ages of 15 and 24 years. “We need to teach girls and boys about safe behavior,” said Rihani.

The Ambassadors Girls Education Program will ensure that the girls who are chosen to participate in the scholarship program will be supported in their schoolwork, in their families, and in their communities; one of the objectives of the program is that the girls’ success will have a positive effect on their lives and the lives of their families.

“If we can help these girls go to school, their lives will improve and they will have an impact on their children, both boys and girls,” said Rihani. “They will ensure that the next generation will go to school and perpetuate the cycle.”

The Ambassadors’ Girls’ Scholarship Program is funded by USAID.


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