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There is overwhelming evidence that girls’ education is a powerful transformative force for communities and for girls themselves. Every day we see how the education of girls and women helps to change the path of the remote African communities where we work. The education of women and girls has a dramatic impact on rates of mortality and fertility, on reducing poverty, increasing economic growth, and on the emergence of female leadership.
Yet, we are not on track to reach the Millennium Development Goal for Universal Primary Education by 2015, and the majority of the children who are still not in school are girls.
It is difficult to expect large-scale success around girls’ education without community mobilization. ‘Girls’ education’ does not exist in a vacuum and, while integral to long-term development, it cannot be addressed as a standalone issue or be viewed in isolation to community development and priorities. We need to do more than single out girls for education and scholarships. Without framing ‘girls’ education’ as part of a broader education program, it is impossible to address some of the other practices that hinder girls’ education such as child/forced marriage and gender inequality.
In order to create the best environment for girls’ education to thrive, community agreement about the human right to education is paramount, as well as an understanding of the responsibilities of parents and community members to educate their children, boys and girls alike.
Our three-year community empowerment program provides human rights-based nonformal education to community members who have had very little or no access to education. We have class sessions for adolescents and adults and we teach all participants, including mothers and grandmothers to read, write, and do simple math. This is all done within the context of what is important to them and their community – whether it is running a market stall or recording births in the village or keeping their children healthy. The more relevant that education is, the more important it becomes.
On the other hand, if education is not seen as relevant to a community, parents may not see its importance. This is not a situation that is unique to Africa, not by a long way. How many family meals have you witnessed or perhaps even attended where a father might ask his daughter or son, “What are you going to do with a Degree in Philosophy?” The father might wonder how that degree is going to help his child support her or himself. African mothers and fathers are no different, they follow practices they believe will help their children survive and thrive in their communities.
As our program reinforces the human right to education and places its value within the priorities of the community, we are able to generate community support while ensuring community cohesiveness, rather than breaking down relationships and separating girls from their families.
When this change happens at a community level, the decisions reached are shared with others within their wider social network. Through our outreach strategy called ‘organized diffusion’, community members share important information they learn with others through visits and intervillage meetings, enabling a change in attitudes around issues, such as girls’ education, to happen far beyond walls of the classroom.
Earlier this year, we launched our Reinforcement of Parental Practices module, funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and in partnership with Stanford University, in 232 communities in Senegal. This program helps parents to prepare their children for learning and also recognizes that while it is important for children, especially girls, to enroll in school, it is imperative that they have the support to stay and succeed once they are there. Through this program we are seeking to reinforce the importance of children’s education and teach parents and community members, who have already gone through our three-year program, skills for cognitive stimulation of their infants and for supporting their children once at school. As documented in a 2010 Early Grade Reading Assessment, levels of literacy in Senegalese schools are very low. Following the evaluation of reading levels among 687 primary school-age children in 11 regions, more than a quarter of primary school-age children surveyed were unable to read a word per minute in French, while fewer than half were able to read more than nine words per minute.
As well as providing skills for better interaction between parents and children to support their development, the program is also working to create or reinforce 232 School Management Committees and directly involves over 600 teachers and school directors, ensuring that girls, and boys, are receiving support for their studies from both their home and school environments.
This program reinforces the Tostan Community Empowerment Program that already has results in inciting communities to organize for education for girls by building new classrooms, helping them to negotiate with the government for teachers, build latrines in schools for girls and provide meals for children who have to walk long distances to attend.
The theme of this year’s International Day of the Girl is about innovating for girls’ education. Our partner communities in Africa are achieving their results through a collective decision for change. Parent and community involvement in girls’ education is critical for success and we must continue to work for collective understanding and support around this important issue and situate it within the wider framework of community-led development.
Molly Melching is Founder and Executive Director of Tostan