Mother to Daughter: Gender guidelines and education in Senegal
Most girls in Senegal do not finish school. For every 60,000 girls entering the first grade, roughly 200 succeed in completing high school. Half of these young women attend university, and ultimately only 20 women out of the 60,000 will obtain a graduate degree. The discrepancy between the education available to the sexes has long-lasting implications for the health of society and the country’s economy. Additionally, it has larger repercussions for local and international norms of gender equality, education and human rights. The celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is an opportune time to analyze these development challenges and offer recommendations.
Improving access to education will require strong and harmonious collaboration between non-governmental organizations and public programmes, to provide tutoring or entrepreneurial opportunities for Senegalese girls. My experience running the Women’s Health Education and Prevention Strategies Alliance and 10,000 Girls programmes shaped my views. After spending much of my life living and working in Africa, I relocated with my five grandchildren to rural Senegal in 2000. An educator by training, I began home-schooling them. One day, a playmate of my second granddaughter approached me and asked that I assist her with her schoolwork so she could finish third grade. I could not refuse her request for help. She did not come alone, and within a short period of time, girls were bringing their sisters, cousins and friends and helping one another to advance in school.
Independent action brings communal benefits
Their demand for education outpaced the resources I had, and the girls themselves began raising money for the programme by selling cookies and lemonade. These efforts have grown into a self-sustaining bakery, sewing business and craft workshop. Half of the proceeds go to women who work and the other half to funding our education initiatives. The positive results of these efforts, both for the local community and also for girls’ self-esteem, are appreciated in the six different locations where we run our programme.
This work has shown me how non-governmental organizations can foster independent thinking, interdependent learning and economic responsibility toward one’s family and neighbours. It also demonstrates how communities can encourage governments to direct energy and resources to education and social programmes. Gender-responsive policies are necessary to ensure that girls across Africa enrol, attend and complete primary and secondary education. Such policies should articulate principles on how to address inequalities resulting from the different roles and expectations of males and females in our society. A variety of factors, including family poverty, competing demands on time and lack of security – both in and out of school – prevent girls from finishing primary and secondary training. Rates of attendance are further compromised by policies that allow scarce resources and limited school facilities to push girls out of the formal education system.
Women’s traditional economic roles confine them to household and subsistence tasks – such as the production, processing, storage and preparation of food for the family – which, are often unremunerated, reinforcing their unequal status in communities and societies. This is an especially grave problem where the migration of men to cities in search of an income is a massive and socially disruptive trend that often leaves women without money to meet even the most basic needs of their young and old family members. Despite increasingly heavy workloads, many women and girls still remain dependent on men in order to obtain any household items.
Ending a dire cycle with a new generation
Mothers want their daughters to have a better life. They enrol them in school hoping they will receive an education and training, become self-sufficient and ultimately participate in the cash economy. But, as women’s household tasks multiply in pregnancy, birth and child-rearing, they increasingly depend on their daughters’ help. This, in turn, impacts their daughters’ school attendance, increasing the likelihood of failing examinations, and potentially forfeiting enrolment in public school. Students in Senegal who do not pass an exam after two attempts must relinquish their spot.
The difficulties women encounter in obtaining an education and equal work for equal pay are passed down through generations. For girls to thrive, their mothers must also be valued. It is my hope that governments will honour the commitments they have made to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. If they do, I believe the enactment of education programmes allowing for gender-responsive guidelines can positively impact a new generation of girls and boys in Senegal and across Africa. These efforts, coupled with the support of parents, teachers, local communities, education policymakers and especially children and young people themselves, can assure that girls flourish in school and in life.
Viola M. Vaughn is the founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Health Education and Prevention Strategies Alliance (WHEPSA) and 10,000 Girls programme in Kaolack, Senegal. 10,000 Girls was born as a result of Dr Vaughn home-schooling her five grandchildren. The programme provides educational and entrepreneurial training to girls in Africa. It now involves more than 1,500 students in six locations across Africa.
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