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Senegal: Helping girls make the grade
Sitting with a group of her peers, Thiam’s is the only female hand that shoots up, along with those of a dozen boys, when asked who among them goes to school.
“The girls here want to go to school, but their parents don’t have the means. They can’t afford the inscription fees or the supplies,” says Thiam, 20, speaking for the girls around her who haven’t had the opportunity to learn French, the language of instruction in Senegal.
Thiam is the only girl in her village to have completed high school. She is about to enter her final year in a two-year accounting programme offered in Kaolack, the largest nearby city and approximately 90 minutes away by road.
As in many villages in West Africa, education is still a distant dream for many girls. The United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) says that in Senegal about 40 percent of girls 7-12 years old lack access to basic education, and those who do enroll are likely to drop out. Sixty percent of Senegalese girls are illiterate. Senegal’s Ministry of Education reported that 80.6 percent of girls began school during the 2004-2005 school year, yet only eight percent finished high school.
In the intervening years, many factors come into play that pluck girls from their desks and books and into the adult world, where they are often not equipped to deal with the lives handed to them.
“Many parents are ignorant of the importance of education and pull their daughters out of school at some point,” said Anta Basse Konte, president of the scientific commission of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) in Senegal.
FAWE is a pan-African organisation that aims to improve access to school for girls and strengthen retention rates. The organisation conducts sensitisation campaigns, speaking to parents about the importance of keeping their daughters in school. It also provides financial assistance and scholarships.
Konte says that even a large city like Dakar, Senegal’s capital, has pockets of resistance to sending girls to school.
“We did a study and found that in certain suburbs underage marriage is a big problem. These are more traditional zones where there is a very strong religious influence that promotes this practice,” she said.
She said that in some communities the local marabouts, Muslim Senegalese religious leaders and teachers, have been urging parents find husbands for their daughters – some as young as nine. Generally, a young bride’s new domestic duties put an end to her education.
“Parents fear that their daughters will fall pregnant out of wedlock because there is a great deal of shame attached to that,” said Konte, explaining why some parents agree to early marriage.
She said that one school in particular has been suffering tremendous losses from its classrooms because the local marabout performs yearly collective marriages, sometimes marrying off between 100 and 200 young girls at a time.
Economics is another reason for early marriage. Parents might view their daughters as financial burdens and consider how a dowry might help family finances.
“Often it just comes down to poverty,” said Konte.
For this reason, girls will also be pulled from school to work, often as domestic workers or merchants. Or, they will take the place of their mother in the household to care for younger siblings because both parents need to work. Konte said this is very common in fishing villages and in agricultural areas.
Accessibility is also a factor in education. UNICEF says that 35 percent of schools in Senegal do not offer the full primary cycle, making it difficult for girls to reach schools offering higher grades. Parents either can’t afford to send their daughters to distant schools or fear losing control of them if they are far away.
This has been the case in Keur Omar Tounkara, where a local primary school has only existed for four years. Young girls can now attend school, but older ones who missed out stay in the village, spending their days cooking, cleaning, tending to their siblings and retrieving water from the well.
Thiam said she had to push and work hard to get as far as she did.
“I found ways to get by. My family came together and pooled their money so I could afford to go. And I studied day and night to get good grades,” she said.
She hopes to work at a bank when she completes her accounting programme, a job that she says will provide her with a decent salary and allow her to help her family.
“Parents often only think in the short-term and don’t think about school as a long-term investment that will provide their daughters with better paying jobs, greater autonomy and more control over their lives,” said Konte.
She said her organisation is funding the university education of 10 girls studying abroad. It is also trying to encourage girls to pursue studies in mathematics and science by offering bursaries that include supplies such as laptops, she said.
Konte stresses the importance of creating a cycle of change
She said she hopes that if girls have role models they will be motivated to continue their educations, and if parents witness some success stories they will be more inclined to keep their daughters in school.
“Right now girls have very few intellectual models,” Konte said. “It is just normal to drop-out.”