Satou carefully takes a pen in her hand, concentrates hard and slowly writes her name on a piece of paper. The group of colourfully dressed women bursts into applause and cheers. Satou lowers her eyes and smiles shyly, but her pride, confidence and self-esteem shine through.
“I didn’t know how to read or write because I never went to school,” says Satou. “When I saw my daughter practising how to write, I didn’t understand but I wanted to learn.”
Satou is one of many illiterate and formerly illiterate women in the Mamudfana village Mothers’ Club in The Gambia. They are coming together, with the support of UNICEF, to break down the barriers to education, including poverty, traditional customs such as early marriage and a resistance to educating girls. They are tearing down these obstacles for themselves and their daughters, to the benefit of their families, communities and the overall development in The Gambia.
When they were growing up, not a single member of the Mamudfana Mothers’ Club realized that education was her basic right. But women like Satou are grabbing a second chance to pursue that right and are determined to see that all children – girls and boys – enjoy the right to an education.
Since 2001 UNICEF has supported the United Nations Girl-Friendly School Initiative in The Gambia, striving to reach the Millennium Development Goal of gender parity in education by 2005. To that end, UNICEF began a pilot project in 10 Lower Basic Schools in the nation’s poorest rural areas: Upper, Central and Lower River Divisions. By September 2002 the Girl-Friendly School Initiative had expanded to 40 new schools throughout the country.
There are 65 Mothers’ Clubs throughout The Gambia. They are integral to the success of the Girl-Friendly School Initiative. Members advocate for all girls and boys to go to and stay in school. The groups also ensure active community participation and support for education and the management of village schools. They enrich their children’s nutrition through vegetable gardens. They participate in Peer Health Groups, sharing information about reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, malaria prevention and nutrition. And the women learn to read and write.
Many of the mothers participate in income-generating activities, such as poultry-raising, soap-making, batik and tie-dying, gardening and other self-sustaining activities. The extra money they earn supplements meagre family incomes and helps pay for school fees, books and uniforms. UNICEF supported the Mothers’ Clubs with seed money to start these small businesses.
Education and economic empowerment
UNICEF also supplied the clubs with labour-saving milling machines to refine maize, millet and rice for consumption at home or for sale in local markets. These time-saving devices free up women for other income-producing activities, caring for their families and ensuring their children go to school. The mills also save daughters from the onerous task of daily milling by hand.
The Mothers’ Clubs are not to be underestimated as they push for gender parity in schools. One male teacher noted that women are much better than men at convincing parents to send their daughters to school. The Mothers’ Club also holds sway within their own families. One member explained that her adolescent daughter had an offer of marriage and that the father wholeheartedly approved. The mother, bolstered by her new experiences and knowledge, convinced her husband to allow their daughter to remain in school.
The Mothers’ Clubs seem to be having a positive effect on primary school enrolment rates. In the Mamudfana Lower Basic School, for instance, enrolment jumped by 26 per cent for boys and 44 per cent for girls in a three-year period. In 2000 there were 223 children enrolled – 117 boys and 106 girls. By 2003 there were 300 students in primary school –147 boys and 153 girls. Enrolment in some other schools within the Girl-Friendly School Initiative leapt 200 per cent.
There has been another by-product of getting and keeping girls in school.
“Sometimes my daughter says, ‘Mother, we have to keep everything in the house clean to stop diseases from making us sick,’ and then she will begin to clean things up in the house without having to be told,” says Fatou, another member of the Club. “And she’s always washing her hands and telling me to do so before I make the food. It’s good for us all.”