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It takes a community to educate a girl, or a boy, in Benin
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“When I have finished washing myself, I check if my girls have finished washing. If they have, we go to school together so we will not be late to school,” says Elaire Gama, 11, who attends the Bembéréké Primary School in a rural farming village in northern Benin.
Role models for young girls
‘Big sisters’ are older girls who volunteer to pick up one to three younger ones every morning. They walk together to and from school, and the elder girl looks after the younger ones at play time.
“The other students respect us and they look up to us as if we were teachers,” says Elaire. It is clear that she takes her role very seriously.
Many of the senior students in the school also act as monitors. If someone in their neighbourhood does not make it to school, that student visits the family to find out why and then reports back to the headmaster. They also look for children who have never enrolled and encourage them to attend.
In 2008, only about one in five Beninese girls enrolled in secondary school, as opposed to nearly half of all boys. Using student monitors is only one of many tactics upon which Benin’s schools rely to turn around the dismal record of school attendance and completion.
The UNICEF-supported community education initiative in 645 schools around the country makes education the responsibility of elected leaders as well as educators, parents and students themselves.
Bembéréké Mayor Chabu Mane Moussa regularly attends the parent-teacher association’s meetings, which take place in a school classroom. “The constitution of Benin says every child must go to school, whether it is a boy or girl,” the mayor points out. “We have to make sure the school is a factor in our development because in any country, if there is no education, there is no development.”
Educating parents on the importance of schooling, especially for girls, is a large part of the effort in Benin. The Girls’ Education Acceleration Strategy, signed in 2005, promoted gender equality, and primary school is free for all children. Girls’ enrolment has increased significantly as a result.
“Here in Benin, most of the parents are uneducated and don’t know how to read and write. But they want to know how their child is performing,” explains the headmaster at Bembéréké Primary School, Saka Jonas.
The women of the district where Bembéréké is located support the school by making and selling gari (a popular food made from cassava) once a week. They donate a portion of their earnings to the school. Another portion goes into a rotating fund from which mothers can borrow at a low interest rate to pay for school uniforms and other educational necessities.
The proceeds from these sales enabled the building of a new pre-school in the village.
Tamou Kpageno, a farmer’s wife with five children all under the age of 10, is an active member of the women’s group that supports education. She also benefits from the services provided by the pre-school. Instead of worrying about how she will care for her three- and four-year-olds, she has her older children drop them off at the pre-school centre.
“We women organized ourselves to make money to send our children to school,” says Ms. Kpageno, sitting on a stool as she fries gari. “I hope my children will be good teachers or good policemen, or that some of them even go to Europe to be successful.”