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‘Girl-to-girl strategy’ helps girls stay in school in Madagascar

©UNICEF Madagascar/2005/Kibesaki
Seven-year-old Vololonirina, a first-grade student in Maharidaza, walks to school each morning with her ‘big sister’ Mino, a fourth-grade girl who lives nearby.

UNICEF’s latest ‘Progress for Children’ report, on gender parity and primary education, is part of the many efforts by partners in the world community to ensure that opportunities for going to school are equally available to both girls and boys. The report complements the work of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative and the Gender Achievement and Prospects in Education (GAP) project, both supported by UN agencies, governments, donor countries, non-governmental organizations, civil society, the private sector and communities and families. ‘Progress for Children’ was released on 18 April 2005.

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar, 15 April 2005 – In Madagascar, UNICEF is advocating for girls’ education through an alliance with its most important partners: children.

The ‘girl-to-girl’ strategy, piloted in Madagascar in 2001, encourages teachers to identify first-grade girls who are at risk of dropping out. The ‘little sisters’ are then paired with ‘big sisters’ from the fourth and fifth grades, who sign pledges to support their younger peers.

The girls walk to school, play during recess and do their homework together. The ‘big sisters’ advise the younger girls on hygiene and social skills, and work on building their confidence in the classroom.

The strategy is key to keeping girls in school – a significant challenge in a country where low retention rates are a major obstacle to girls’ education. “I think the ‘girl-to-girl strategy’ is very important,” says Madame Jacqueline Ravolazainjafy, a school principal in Manjakandriana district. “Even though Madagascar has been successful in increasing the number of children in primary school from 1.5 million to 2.8 million during the period from 1995 to 2002, only about one-third of them make it to grade five.”

But for children involved in the ‘girl-to-girl’ project, the future is more promising.

© UNICEF Madagascar/2005/Kibesaki
The ‘girl-to-girl’ strategy in Madagascar sees older pupils help their ‘little sisters’ remain in school by walking them to class, playing with and advising them on hygiene and social skills.

Benefits for both ‘big’ and ‘little’ sisters

“Evidence suggests that ‘younger sisters’ miss school less and have become more interested in their studies,” says UNICEF Education Officer Francisco Basili. “The strategy is not only beneficial for the younger girls, but for the older ones as well.”

“The fourth and fifth graders see themselves as role models and act in a more responsible way,” explains Madame Jacqueline. “This in itself is a great thing.”

Seven-year-old Vololonirina, a first-grade student in Maharidaza, walks to school each morning with her ‘big sister’ Mino, a fourth-grade girl who lives nearby. “Other than going to and coming back from school together,” says Vololonirina, “we read textbooks together, either after school or on Saturdays and Sundays. I love reading with Mino! When we are at home, we also go fetch water together.”

Vololonirina’s mother has observed a significant difference in her daughter over the past few months. “Since Mino started taking care of Vololonirina,” she says, “I have noticed that her reading has improved.  She has become more talkative, and she can express her feelings better.”

“That’s true,” concurs her father. “Thanks to Mino, she has better hygiene, and she knows how to take good care of herself.”

Nilaina, another ‘little sister’ in the school, has been paired with fifth-grader Zoly for more than a year.

“Thanks to Zoly, I have noted that Nilaina is a better second-grader,” says Madame Jacqueline. “Nilaina had real problems reading. If it were not for Zoly, she would have had to repeat first grade. Fortunately, the ‘girl-to-girl strategy’ has ensured that Nilaina does not repeat or drop out of school.”

©UNICEF Madagascar/2005/Kibesaki
Nilaina and Zoly have been paired up under the ‘girl-to-girl’ strategy in Madagascar. The support system ensures young girls have an older ‘big sister’ to work on building their confidence in the classroom.

Extending the ‘girl-to-girl strategy’

Evaluations in Madagascar indicate that girls leave school more often than boys because of the burden of household chores, parents’ views on the importance of girls’ education, concern for girls’ safety, and the lack of gender-sensitive school environments.

The ‘girl-to-girl strategy’ helps address these issues by providing children with a peer support network as they progress through primary school.

UNICEF supported a pilot project in Manjakandriana starting in 2001. Last year, as the first step in scaling up the programme, the ‘girl-to-girl strategy’ was extended to another district with low retention rates for girls. The programme now reaches 3,000 girls each year who are considered to be at risk of dropping out of school. Plans are in place to extend the effort to 11 more school districts in 2005.

Challenges persist, among them the difficulties involved with implementing the strategy consistently in each school. The government of Madagascar is a vital partner in this effort. “Without close monitoring by the district education officers, who supervise the teachers, especially in the first year, the strategy would not work as well,” says Francisco Basili.

But it is Zoly who has the last word. “It’s great to be a ‘big sister.’ I wish I had had a ‘big sister’ when I was in first grade – life would have been much easier!”



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