UNICEF and partners transforming lives of children through improved schools in Niger
By Bob Coen
GARIN GUIZO, Niger , 10 March 2010 – As dawn breaks in this rural village in southern Niger, the daily routine begins the same way it has for generations. Eleven-year-old Zhara lights the fire, warms a pot of water and sweeps the family yard.
Until recently, such tasks would have been the start of a long day of chores for a girl like Zhara. But today, she – along with all of the village’s children – is going to school, an example of the exciting trend of increasing access to edu- cation in this West African nation.
Education is the key
“We’re really happy to go school. We want to do well and succeed,” says Zhara. “I want to become a nurse and my friend a teacher.”
Child-friendly schools – and girl-friendly schools, like the one Zhara is attending – are the cornerstones of an initiative by UNICEF to transform not only education, but age-old practices here as well.Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries, and it has one of lowest rates of primary school attendance – only 44 per cent of boys and 31 per cent of girls of primary school age attend classes. A large majority of girls in this rural part of the country are married before the age of 18 , and they end up giving birth to an average of seven children. One in six of those children will die before the age of five due to easily preventable diseases. Education is key to changing this cycle. “By giving girls the chance to go to school, we help them avoid underage marriages and forced marriages, which are fairly common around here,” says UNICEF Niger Communication Officer Adamou Matti Dan Mallam. “They also learn about health and maternity issues, and other practical things that can have a real impact in their everyday lives.”
Improving access to education in countries like Niger is a massive effort, and UNICEF relies on the support of dedicated partners to help girls like Zhara see a better future.
Home furnishing retailer IKEA is one such partner. As UNICEF’s largest corporate donor, IKEA – through the company’s philanthropic arm, the IKEA Social Initiative – has donated more than $16 million to UNICEF and its partners, supporting a total of 40 projects in more than 20 countries since 2003.
Thanks to its fundraising activities in 2009, like the ‘soft toy’ drive that IKEA has been running in its stores from New York to Stockholm, is supporting UNICEF’s Schools for Africa campaign in six countries, including Niger.
The funds have already helped schools train teachers, purchase classroom supplies, construct new buildings and provide safe water and basic sanitation for boy and girl students.
An important feature of the child-friendly schools approach is community involvement. Parents, village elders and children themselves are all encouraged to participate in running their schools. The school management committee at Zhara’s school has been embraced by the whole village of Garin Guizo.
Teacher Hamissou Saoude explains: “They are proud to see their children going to school … and at home, the children are even teaching their parents what they’re learning in the classroom.”
On a hot day in February, the entire village turns out to thank IKEA for its support and to celebrate the achievements of not only the children but the community as a whole. The school has truly become the centre of village life, and everyone here has begun to recognize the benefits of education.
“We used to have to travel to the city just to have a letter read… Now I wait for the day when one of the girls of our village will become a government minister,” says village chief Ali Katoumbe.
Such changes in attitude are not lost on Zhara. “If boys can go to school to learn and succeed, why can’t I do the same?” she asks.
With the support of partners like IKEA, and with the participation of the communities themselves, UNICEF is helping bring about real change in Niger – one school at a time.