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In Senegal, UNICEF Executive Director cites the urgency of education for all

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0906/Ricci Shryock
In the HLM neighbourhood of Dakar, the Senegalese capital, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake lifts a smiling boy who is wearing a UNICEF T-shirt, as other children look on.

Dakar, Senegal, 18 May 2010 – Surrounded by the concrete bricks and flood-stained walls of her school, Anta, 11, attends classes and dreams of becoming a paediatrician. She knows she is lucky.

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But many of her friends have not been so fortunate, Anta told UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake during his visit to her school yesterday. Mr. Lake is in Senegal this week for a global conference on girls’ education and gender equality.

Closing the gender gap

Here in the impoverished HLM neighbourhood of Senegal’s capital, Dakar, many children are forced to drop out of school in order to work. Girls suffer disproportionately from these economic challenges.

Anta told Mr. Lake the story of her friend Aissatou, 15, who had to leave school after the death of her parents. Unable to support herself while still in school, Aissatou left home to live with her grandmother, who needed her help with domestic work.

“Now she has to work every day cleaning the house and cooking,” Anta said of her friend. “So she can’t come to school anymore.”

Mr. Lake visited with Anta and her classmates as part of a tour of schools around Dakar, where he is attending the ‘Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality’ conference organized by the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI).

The three-day meeting brings together over 200 global experts with the goal of unlocking quality education opportunities and closing the gender gap worldwide. The event also marks the 10th anniversary of UNGEI, which was launched by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000.

Girls bear the burden

Aissatou’s story is not uncommon in Senegal. Although about 72 per cent of primary school-aged girls and boys are enrolled in primary grades, girls suffer steeper drop-out rates as they reach adolescence. Only 18 per cent of secondary school-aged girls are enrolled in secondary school, compared to 23 per cent of boys in the same age group.

“I see a lot of girls who come to school, but their families take them out before they complete their exams,” said Penda Diop, a teacher of 12- and 13 year-olds at Anta’s school. “In our culture, often the girls are taken out of school when their families encounter financial difficulties. It is more important that the boys stay in school than the girls.”

Mr. Lake also toured an Islamic religious school, known as a ‘daara’. An estimated 50,000 Senegalese children receive their education in Koranic schools such as this one.

Situated between a highway and trash-filled drainage ditch, the HLM neighbourhood houses 14 daaras in shacks made of tin and wood. The schools offer Islamic instruction to young students – known as ‘talibés’ – but also serve to fill the gap where formal schooling is not available. The system is open to abuse, however. In some daaras, teachers called ‘marabouts’ send children onto the streets to beg, a common sight on the streets of Dakar.

Besides visiting with schoolchildren, Mr. Lake met with staff members at a UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization, Samu Social, which runs a shelter for former talibé children.

‘Cascading benefits’

Much has changed for many of the world’s children since the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Mr. Lake said at the opening of UNGEI conference. But if progress continues at the current pace, he emphasized, there will still be some 56 million primary school-aged children out of school by 2015. More than half of them will be girls, he said, and a large percentage will be from minority groups.

“This is morally indefensible,” said Mr. Lake. “We know that educating girls creates cascading benefits. An educated girl provides an opportunity to build a more equitable society where women are less likely to marry early or be victims of violence, and more likely to provide for their families.”

Fresh from his visit to Dakar’s HLM neighbourhood, Mr. Lake also noted that the girls and boys he met showed remarkable resilience in the face of difficult conditions. “Everywhere I go, I admire these children, who smile in these circumstances,” he said.

 

 
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