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To enhance and support Gambia government's efforts in the area of access, retention and performance of girls in school, UNICEF through the Forum for African Women Educationalists National Chapter, supported the formation of mothers' clubs in the three most deprived regions of the country. The initiative was part of the Girl Friendly School (GFS) Initiative, which was introduced in 2001. In these regions, most times families operate at subsistence level and hardly have any extra income to support the education of their children. Often it is the boys who attend school and girls are left at home to help with the domestic chores and family maintenance. Net enrolment rates for girls especially are as low as 19% in some areas because, even though primary education is free, the other hidden costs such as uniforms, writing materials, school lunch pose lot of difficulties to parents. These and other cultural and traditional practices undermine greatly the performance and retention of girls in school in these areas.
To adequately address this cost element and respond sufficiently to the cultural barriers to girls' education in such regions, UNICEF supported voluntary association of women to form the Mothers' clubs. There are now 65 such clubs in the three regions. The initiative is based on the doctrine of self-reliance to fight a common cause for extending the educational franchise to include, in sufficient numbers, girls who had hitherto limited opportunities to education at no fault of theirs.
The overall aim of setting-up the clubs is to promote family and community participation and create special opportunities for women/mothers in particular in the promotion of access, retention and performance of their girls/daughters in schools. Specifically the initiative is there:
• To empower women/mothers to take full responsibility for the education of their girl children and giving them the opportunities to do so.
• To facilitate the mother/child and parent/parent peer counseling especially on sensitive issues as early marriage and teenage pregnancy and other reproductive health issues.
• To provide opportunities for mothers to sensitize families and communities on the importance of girls’ education and become strong advocates for girls’ education at both family and community levels.
The clubs assess their own needs and the problems encountered in educating their daughters in school. Once these concerns are established they are provided with cash assistance from UNICEF to the tune of $245.00 each, as seed money. These funds are used in income-generating activities under the guidance and leadership of their own elected executive members. The activities include: batik, tie and dye, soap making, pomade making, poultry farming and crop cultivation. The initial financial inputs are considered as support from UNICEF and the clubs are expected to be self-sustaining later as the years go by.
The results of the sensitization activities and information sharing on the importance of girls' education provide opportunities for the mothers clubs to identify the needs of their daughters in school both in terms of counseling and material needs. The profits are therefore used to meet the cost of the basic learning materials in support of the education of their daughters.
Through the provision of Seed money (from UNICEF) for establishing income-generating projects, the efforts of the Mothers’ Clubs have been outstanding both in relation to their entrepreneurial skills but also in relation to their success in convincing parents to send their daughters to school.
The Mothers’ Clubs also have an advocacy function with strategies to deal with resistance in convincing parents to send their children to school. For example, one of the members spoke about how a bid had already been made for her daughter to marry. Her husband was very much for it, but she argued with him and finally convinced him that it would be better for the daughter to remain in school. “Now he believes it in his heart, too” she observed. Clearly this advocacy role is a major one. As one of the male teachers pointed out, they <males>are not really in the position to go into the villages to convince parents the way mothers themselves are.
In addition to this advocacy role, the adult literacy classes that have been set up in school connect to the overall effectiveness of the Mothers’ Clubs. One mother told her story that for her the value of being in the classes is that she now knows her numbers, so that when she goes to the hospital to visit a friend or relative she can now go directly to the room on her own and does not need to rely on asking someone. She also observed that now that she is in the class, she has a greater appreciation for the fact that her children must study at night if they are to progress in school.
UNICEF together with Forum for African Women Educationalists have planned and conducted training sessions for the Mothers’ Club executives in April-May, 2003. The mothers’ club initiative has great potential for increasing access and improving retention of girls in school. Since its introduction in the Girls friendly School communities, enrolment rates for girls increased on average by 34%. Incidence of withdrawal of girls from school for marriage purposes also rarely occurred. In Gambia, the initiative has proved very successful to promote girls’ education through partnerships with their families, especially with their mothers.