Girls’ Education- The Most Important Question

8 October 2021

Lots of children moan about school meals but school meals can be the difference between a child getting an education or not. In Wau, in South Sudan, they have the problem that exists all around the world, how can one keep girls at school? How can one persuade families to keep their girls at school once they have reached society’s “marriageable age,” at 12 or 13 or 14?

HART partner Archbishop Moses in Wau, concerned about the future of his people, lacking educated men and even more women, provides subsidised and free education to men and women. Moreover, he uses minimal Church resources to arrange free main meal for girls at the schools. By feeding the girls, they become informal contributors to their family income without going out to work or being married off. As a result, girls’ retention in schools has increased.

The international coordinator for Health NGOs in Juba, South Sudan, Chris Lewis, once told us, “if you gave me a hundred million pounds to improve the health of the people of South Sudan, then speaking as a doctor, I would spend every penny on girls’ education. That is the only sure way to improve the health and nutrition of a society.”

At HART we often proudly announce, “we have no women’s empowerment programmes.” Why? Because all of our projects have women’s empowerment at the heart of what they want to achieve. None of our projects can succeed without women’s empowerment. How else can a society develop economically, agriculturally, educationally, in health, in nutrition and hygiene, in political consciousness without women? For HART, Women are fundamentally the most important part of the solution.

B.R. Abedkar, the great Indian leader, honoured as the main author of the country’s 1949 Constitution once said, “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”

Both, Health and Hope, the health training NGO in Burma (Myanmar), in whose foundation HART was crucially involved in between 2008 and 2010, and SWAN (the Shan Women’s Action Network), place the empowerment and education of women at the centre of their activities. On an early HART visit to the Chin People, attending the inaugural meeting of the newly formed Chin Women’s Forum, one of the women said to Baroness Cox, “this is the first time I have been asked for my opinion.”

But how do we educate women? What are the obstacles to it?

Keeping girls in school beyond the first 2 or 3 years is key. From experience, one can visit many schools in many countries. Many will proudly state that they have more than 50% female students. When one looks at the school registers however, one finds that nearly all those girls are in the first few years. However, when you look at the older students, you will be lucky to find one girl in ‘sixth form’ amongst 100-150 boys.

Many girls leave school when they reach puberty. This can be due to personal reasons, societal taboos, family or societal expectations or the need for young girls to marry. Female hygiene packs and increasing the number of female teachers can help to encourage girls to stay in school.

In most of these societies, a bride-price is paid to the girl’s family when she marries. Where families are living hand-to-mouth, where famine is more than just a possibility, this income is often significantly depended on.

Moreover, there is a lack of motivation for families to educate their daughters. If they are to leave the family once they marry, why invest in their daughters’ education? Whilst this seems hard to comprehend, when families are faced with the choice between education and food, difficult decisions must be made.

Bit-by-bit, increasing the number of jobs available to girls once educated can help. Archbishop Moses, for example, has ensured that at least 30% of his employees must be women. HART also assists British school teacher, Naomi Pendle, who spent years living and working in South Sudan at the school she founded called Marol Academy, a girls’ school that boys can attend. To attract more girls to education, she combined girls’ education with training in midwifery and administrative training. Providing a pathway to employment that others could not.

HART has cooperated in teacher training in Sudan and South Sudan but attracting female students is not easy. Married women are discouraged by their families to attend. Women who attend are nearly all single-parent mothers, whose school day is time sensitive, and who need to live close to avoid transport costs. Along with the UK organization, Global Care, we have been forced to accept that currently we are not going to be able to train female teachers from a wide geographical area, provide female teachers in more remote areas or encourage female pupils in such areas.

So, we must take on a slightly longer-term approach. For now, we will have to train male teachers, who with the assistance of the limited number of female teachers, can set up new smaller schools that are accessible to women in remote areas, interested in becoming teachers.

In Nigeria, a Muslim father who sent his children to a Christian school because he wanted them to receive a wider education, said of other families who resisted, “they do not like their daughters going to a Christian school. Their daughters come home wanting to think for themselves.”

May there be more parents thinking like this, and more women thinking for themselves.

By David Thomas, Project Logistics Manager

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