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In Djibouti, Fatouma struggles to become her village’s first female high school graduate

©UNICEF Djibouti/2006/Nybo
Twenty-year-old Fatouma will be the first female high school graduate from her village.

UNICEF’s flagship annual report, ‘The State of the World’s Children’, launched on 11 December 2006, focuses this year on the double dividend of gender equality, which helps both women and children overcome poverty. Here is one in a series of related stories.

ARDO, Djibouti, 2 January 2007 – Fatouma, 20, carries a heavy burden on her small shoulders. She is the eldest of 16 children whose father was lost during the civil war in Djibouti. Her mother ekes out a living by selling crepes. Despite the hardships of her daily life, Fatouma will soon be the first girl from the village of Ardo to complete her secondary education.

This is no small accomplishment. Ardo, which is in one of Djibouti’s poorest regions, does not have a secondary school. Although girls make up half the number of students in the village’s primary school, very few of them continue on to secondary education.

“I’m not a normal student,” says Fatouma. “I will be the first girl from Ardo to graduate from high school, and it is a big responsibility.”

Much is at stake

Fatouma’s family and community are keeping a watchful eye on her progress. To them, the fact that she is still unmarried at 20 makes her an ‘old maid’.

For the last five years, her great uncle has wanted her to marry his son. If Fatouma fails to pass her graduation exams, she will have no choice but to accept the marriage.

“In my community, all marriages are arranged, and girls must obey their parents’ decisions,” Fatouma says. “But my mother knows that if she marries me off, she’ll lose her only hope of climbing out of poverty. That’s why she allows me and even encourages me to continue with my studies. She would like me to become a respectable woman in an office.”

Obstacles of poverty and tradition

Fatouma faces many challenges in her quest for a higher education. Her day begins at 5:30 a.m. She cleans the entire house, then goes out to sell the crepes made by her mother. Afterwards, she rushes back home to get both herself and her younger sisters ready for school.

Because Fatouma’s mother cannot afford basic school necessities for her children, she has been relying on UNICEF’s school-bag programme for supplies. In 2005, UNICEF distributed these kits nationwide to all 46,500 children attending public schools in Djibouti.

“I would not have been able to continue my studies without UNICEF’s assistance to my sisters and brothers,” says Fatouma.

An example for other girls

In order for Fatouma to attend secondary school, her mother moved the entire family from Ardo to the main town of Tadjourah. As a result, some parents in Ardo who used to be adamant about taking their daughters out of school now allow them to commute to Tadjourah to continue their studies.

Fatouma envisions continuing her education beyond high school. “I would like to go to university and be an example for the rest of the community,” she says. “If I do that, I would like to come back to Ardo to teach and fight for the right of all girls to go to school.”

The realities of living in poverty, however, might dampen her lofty dreams.

“Unfortunately, I’ll have to look for a job right after graduation,” says Fatouma. “When I see how poor, old and feeble my mother is, my dreams of going to university vanish. When you are poor, you don’t have many choices.”


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UNICEF correspondent Rachel Bonham-Carter tells the story of a young girl in Djibouti who has overcome hardships to make education her priority.

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The State of the World’s Children 2007