UNICEF is committed to doing all it can to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in partnership with governments, civil society, business, academia and the United Nations family – and especially children and young people.
Lured by rumours of wealth, Saran (name changed), 13, left school to work in a gold mine 55 km from her family, in Guinea.
By Timothy La Rose, Ikuko Shimizu and Gervais Havyarimana
“Whatever you do in the future, you will do it better with literacy.”
–Sophie Koulibary, president, village association of mothers of girl students
MANDIANA DISTRICT, Guinea, 5 November 2013 – At the end of her first shift at the mine, Saran realized she had made a terrible mistake. Just 13 years old, she had been lured by the promise of wealth to be found in the gold mines of Siguiri. She had dropped out of school and, together with her friend Mariam, found her way to a mining camp 55 km away.
“We went to the mine because there was no money,” she says. “I would see other girls come back with new clothes and extra money for their parents.”
Her job, for which she earned less than $US1.50 per day, was to sift through dirt for small pieces of gold. Her work began at 7 a.m. and ended after dinner. There were no weekends. Young miners could come and go from her sleeping quarters, a doorless, shared hut.
Without permission from her host family, who pressured her every day to find gold, she could not leave.
Education for protection
In Guinea, only 34 per cent of girls in rural communities complete their primary education. Saran’s story is not uncommon.
(Left-right) President Sophie Koulibary and Administrative Secretary Maladho Fanta Sacko of the local association of mothers of girl students convinced Saran’s parents of the importance of her education and funded her return home.
There is a significant gap between the education of girls and boys in the country. According to the Ministry of Pre-university and Civic Education Annual Statistics, 51 per cent of girls complete primary education; the gender parity index for this indicator is 0.76. Studies including one supported by UNICEF Guinea on gender disparity in the education sector have demonstrated that poverty, distance between school and home, a shortage of teachers, physical and sexual violence, as well as early marriage and pregnancy, are among the reasons girls are not in school.
Education helps protect girls – including from the child labour to which Saran was subjected. It reduces early marriage, and decreases infant and child mortality. Armed with an education, girls contribute to a fairer and more inclusive community.
Mobilizing mothers to keep girls in school
Innovation to keep girls in school is a priority for UNICEF Guinea. UNICEF and partners build child-friendly schools, reinforce the capacity of teachers and administrators and participate in political advocacy.
Another innovation is establishing local associations of mothers of girl students. Known as comités des mères des élèves filles or COMEFs, these associations work to improve girls’ access to learning and to ensure that they stay in school until they complete their primary education.
COMEF mothers, often with no education themselves, can be the most passionate and effective advocates for the education of their daughters.
Across the country, UNICEF is supporting groups of women as they form these associations to ensure girls have access to, and remain in, school. A girl carries her school books, Guinea Forestière Region.
The COMEF methodology is simple. First, staff from the Ministry of Pre-university and Civic Education sensitize teachers, administrators and mothers of girls on the value of girls’ education and the ability of an association to play a significant role as a strong partner. Next, instructions are given on how to create a COMEF within the school. Mothers elected to a COMEF are trained on community mobilization skills, negotiation skills and simple accounting to manage the committee.
Among the tasks COMEFs might face are assuaging parents’ fears that their girls will be exposed to sexual violence at school, and helping families purchase essential learning materials. The associations are also ‘first responders’. They visit schools to ensure that the girls are in attendance, and they can act quickly when a problem is identified.
Given that most women are illiterate, COMEFs are often supported by a designated teacher, reinforcing the channel of communication between a COMEF and the school.
UNICEF and partners remain in close contact with COMEFs to ensure their success.
COMEFs empowering mothers
Most COMEFs are linked to other income-generating activities for women, which can help ensure their financial sustainability.
Children attend class in the city of Kindia. In Guinea, fewer girls than boys have access to school. An education decreases girls’ risk of experiencing abuse, early marriage and other rights violations.
COMEF mothers have said they are empowered through the associations. Before COMEFs existed, mothers were often poorly represented in parents’ associations. COMEFs have proven to be more effective in dealing with problems that are low priorities for parents’ associations. Moreover, through their experience with COMEFs, COMEF mothers become strong and authoritative in interactions with parents’ associations, school administrators and community leaders, as well as in their households.
With the confidence they gain, COMEF mothers often become role models for other mothers and their daughters.
Saran back in school
Sophie Koulibary is the president of the COMEF in Saran’s village. She and two other COMEF mothers learned that Saran had gone to the mines when they investigated her prolonged absence from class. They explained the importance of Saran’s education to her parents and convinced them to take the young girl back and permit her to return to school. They organized funds to bring her back. Saran’s brother traveled to the mines and secured her release.
Saran is now back in school. On 3 October, she entered Grade 6. When she finishes school, Saran says, she wants to be an advocate for other girls to attend school.
Through COMEFs, there has been an increase in the number of girls enrolling in school, and a reduction of drop-out rates. Mobilizing mothers and giving them tools to improve the lives of their daughters and other girls helps them, in turn, to increase community engagement and participation to promote girls’ education.
UNICEF Guinea continues to implement innovations for girls’ education. It has provided women community organizers with motorcycles to help them reach children in remote villages, as part of its Back to School distribution campaign. Additionally, UNICEF has created special report cards using a colour system so that illiterate parents can track their children’s progress.