The Progress of Nations: Education

Commentary: Keeping girls in school

By Patricia Lone

Choose a desk in a primary school in the developing world and the chances are that it will be occupied by a boy.

Many forces combine to spell an early end to education for girls. Chief among them is poverty. The cost of voluntary' contributions, uniforms, books, and bus fares can make even free education expensive - especially if there are many children. When a poor family considers how much a daughter can help in cleaning, cooking, collecting wood and water, and looking after younger children, and how little opportunity there will be for her to get a paying job even if she is educated, then the returns rarely seem to warrant the expenditure.

So it is usually the daughters who are withdrawn from school.

Even when girls are enrolled, the burden of domestic chores stands in the way of educational progress. A study in Mozambique's primary schools found that the single most important factor in poor performance was the time and strain imposed by the child's workload.

Close behind poverty follows tradition. And perhaps the strongest tradition of all is the idea that sons should be educated because they will be the breadwinners of their own future families, and the supporters of their aging parents. A girl's work, though it may be longer and harder, is considered less likely to bring in monetary income. And in cultures where marriage means that a daughter becomes part of her husband's family, the incentive to educate girls is weaker still.

Yet when asked, many poor families will say that they want their daughters to be educated. Many girls stay home, not because parents are poor or culturally intransigent, but because they do not believe that the kind of education on offer is appropriate for their daughters or because they feel the risks are too great.


Photo: In most developing countries far more boys are being educated than girls.©


Those risks are real. Girls are sexually harassed, sometimes raped, by their fellow students, or their teachers, or sometimes by strangers as they walk to school. Girls get pregnant. And these sexual pressures and vulnerability are central to low enrolment and retention rates for girls in the classrooms of many countries. If classes are overcrowded, if children are poorly supervised, if male students are unruly and violent, then many girls feel threatened and many parents fear for their safety. If no single-sex schools or classes are available, if there are no women teachers, and if the school is too far from the home or community, then female attendance tends to fall away. A study in Egypt, for example, showed that girls' enrolment was at a low 30% when schools were three or more kilometres from the children's homes, but over 70% when the school was located within one kilometre.

Here, too, poverty plays its part. If their clothes are torn or inadequate, girls from poor families, constrained by the demands of modesty and propriety, will stay at home. If they do not have adequate sanitary protection, or if their school does not have separate toilets, then the beginning of menstruation can mean the end of a girl's education.

Few governments and development agencies have adequately addressed the many needs, risks and fears of girls and their families as they make their decisions on whether or not a daughter should attend school.

Just as there is no single cause of the low level of girls' enrolment and retention in school, so there is no single answer.

Many different approaches are being tried, most of them small in scale and as yet unevaluated. The common strands in the experiments to date appear to be the building of schools or classrooms closer to communities (at least for the early years of primary education); the involvement of local communities and parents in the running of schools; the training of more female teachers; the offer of cash incentives to families who keep daughters in school up to specified grades; the expansion of non-formal education to try to give more girls basic literacy, numeracy, and life skills; information campaigns about the importance of girls' education; flexible schedules (to allow girls to meet domestic responsibilities); and more preschool education both as a means of reducing later drop-outs and as a way of making it possible for girls to attend school while their young siblings are cared for.

Some approaches

* In Bangladesh, the 35,000 community schools started by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) have so far enrolled 982,000 students - 70% of them girls. Most of the BRAC teachers are women who live in the community and have 9 or 10 years of schooling. A village management committee runs the school, and there is a monthly meeting between parents and teachers at which the attendance of mothers is considered essential.

* In Mali, 75 village schools have been established with compulsory parity - each class having 15 boys and 15 girls. The schools are run by a committee selected by the community. Twice as many girls are enrolled as in the formal school system.

* In rural south Egypt, where about half a million girls of primary school age are not in school, local community schools are being built to cut down the distance girls are expected to travel. In the 110 schools set up so far, approximately 3,000 children are enrolled - 70% to 80% of them girls.

* In Pakistan, 300 new village schools have enrolled 14,000 girls in one of the most isolated and traditional areas of the country where the female literacy rate is no more than 4%. The success of the Baluchistan project, funded by several international organizations, is partly based on the concept of the mobile female teacher training unit, which allows women with 8 to 10 years of education to train as teachers without leaving their own villages. So far, more than 400 such teachers have been accredited by the Government. The schools themselves are run by village education committees elected by a minimum of 75% of all parents of school-age children.

* A similar project in Punjab (Pakistan) has opened 114 schools over the last five years and succeeded in enrolling approximately 3,000 girls. All teachers and supervisors are women, and the schools maintain a flexible calendar to allow for the seasonal farm work which girls are expected to do.

* In Senegal, the Tostan organization has launched a programme to bring non-formal education to 1,400 girls in 20 villages. Stressing flexible timetables, Tostan is also promoting energy-efficient stoves to save the many hours a day that girls have to spend collecting firewood.

* In Burkina Faso, 30 satellite schools have been set up to reach equal numbers of boys and girls, aged seven to nine, who have dropped out of the school system. After three years in the satellite school, taught in a local language by locally recruited teachers, pupils can transfer back to the formal primary school system.

* In Nepal, girls who have dropped out of school are being offered non-formal classes for two hours a day, six days a week, nine months of the year, after which they are eligible to rejoin the formal school system. Approximately 70,000 girls have enrolled so far. Meanwhile, the Government of Nepal is offering small subsidies to poor parents who keep their daughters in school.


Why do more girls than boys drop out of school? And what can be done to keep them there? A survey by Patricia Lone (UNICEF), based on information and research from Ann Cotton (Cambridge Female Education Trust, UK), Randy Hatfield (Academy for Educational Development, US), Peter Laugharn (Save the Children Federation), Molly Melching (Tostan literacy project, Senegal), and Saudamini Siegrist, Rosa Maria Torres and Malak Zalouk (UNICEF).


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