Achieving universal primary education and eliminating gender disparity in education
The challenge the world faces to meet the Millennium Development Goal 2: to achieve universal primary education by 2015 and Millennium Development Goal 3: to promote gender equality and empower women by eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education is greatest in West & Central Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria the two most populous countries in the region 5.3 million and 7.7 million children, respectively, are out of school. This number is only exceeded in 3 other countries in the world: Ethiopia, India and Pakistan.
The only countries in West & Central Africa that are currently close to achieving universal primary education are amongst the smallest in the region in terms of population: Cap Verde and Sao Tome & Principe. At the other extreme are Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger where fewer than 2 children in every 5 benefit from primary education.
Although the net enrolment rate of children in school in the region has increased at an average annual rate of 0,8% since 1980, less than 60% of school age children attend school today. The gross enrolment ratio in the region is high compared to a low net enrolment rate, indicating a large number of over-aged children in school. Low internal efficiency, particularly the high frequency of repetition, also explains the high gross enrolment rate and the number of over-aged children. High drop-out rates and low transition rates from the first to the fifth grade are other challenges the region faces. In Chad, for instance, only 1 child in 10 reaches the 5th year of school without repeating a grade.
Governments in the region are hard hit by poverty, giving them limited ability and capacity to ensure that there are enough schools, sufficient and qualified teachers and appropriate learning materials. Within these limitations, an equal distribution of schools and quality education opportunities is a great challenge for all govern¬ments. Existing schools become overcrowded and their capacity is put at risk as they are no longer able to provide an appropriate standard of quality education. The lack of a good school infrastructure and unequal distribution of schools, can also contribute to long distances between the homes of children and their school. Parents do not want to take the risk of sending younger children and girls to school if they have to walk long distances. The region also faces a poor quality of education due to a shortage of teachers, low teacher salaries and limited training and development opportunities for teachers.
Only one child out of two in West and Central Africa is in schoolWest & Central Africa has been disproportionately blighted by conflicts and emergencies. The damage done to education systems by war is incalculable. Conflicts have led to the deaths of teachers and pupils and the physical destruction of schools, communities and communication links has made many education systems dysfunctional for long periods. The psycho-social traumas children and the population at a large have experienced have unknown, lasting effects on the learning and development process, a fact that has to be taken into account in the reconstruction process. Even where physical destruction is not an issue, political instability has jeopardized national education systems and the opportunities for children to benefit from quality education.
The particular situation of girls in the West & Central African region should also be noted. Their chances of realizing the manifold benefits of education are far less than the girls of any other region in the world. The gender gap in the region is particularly wide. The gender parity index – girls versus boys – of the region is 0.9. Only 1 girl out of 2 goes to school. Only 5 countries have met Millennium Development Goal 3 of gender parity in primary education in 2005: Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Mauritania and Sao Tome & Principe. The countries in the region in which girls are most disadvantaged are Chad and Niger, where the gender parity index drops below 0.7 and more than 70% of school age girls are out of school. The reduced schooling opportunities for girls in West & Central Africa is closely related to the low status of women in society, as well as cultural factors including early marriage, early pregnancy and female genital mutilation.
Making a shift for accessible quality education
Through the Early Childhood Development Project, UNICEF supports many initiatives on early learning programs for preschool children. These initiatives help prepare children for their schooling and represent a strategy for increased access. The elimination of school fees has been used by some countries in other regions to dramatically increase enrolments, particularly for girls. The reduction of the financial burden on families can often mean they no longer have to make a choice about which child to send to school. However, only a limited number of countries in the region have opted to eliminate or reduce school fees in one way or another: Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Togo and Benin.
In areas with a high proportion of vulnerable children, school feeding programs have been used to dramatically increase enrolment. UNICEF collaborates with the World Food Program (WFP) in countries of the Sahel Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad where children face high rates of undernutrition. School canteens are set up. In addition to ensuring children with one meal a day, this helps contribute to attracting children to the school.
The limited schooling opportunities for children have partially been compensated by non-formal education activities such as Koranic schools or schools for nomadic children. Particular attention has to be given to the quality of these unique and challenging learning environments.
Efforts contributing to an increased access to education must go hand-in-hand with efforts to improve quality of education. Increased enrolment rates means increased demands for resources in terms of qualified teachers, books and classrooms. Lessons learned from emergency situations and the strategies used to effectively purchase and distribute supplies and materials have been an inspirational factor in the development of the Essential Learning Package (ELP) strategy being applied in stable countries as an acceleration strategy for education. Several countries are currently involved in developing their Essential Learning Package: Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Gambia, Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
An intervention of particular importance for girls’ enrolment and their completion of education is the child-friendly/girl-friendly school model which various countries are developing and implemen¬ting. In these schools, children are active participants of the organization of the school. The school environment takes into account the needs of children and has hygiene and health facilities. To contribute to the achievement of the goal of ensuring girls’ education and gender equality and equity in education, UNICEF is also active in setting up a regional network for girls’ education, established under the umbrella of the United Nations Girls Education Initiative (UNGEI). UNGEI was launched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000 and brings together a broad alliance of governments, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations in the region, who all work together towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals related to universal basic education and gender equality.
Education in emergencies and in the reconstruction phase is of high priority for UNICEF. During crisis situations UNICEF programs ensures that the interruption of children’s education is as minimal as possible by identifying safe learning places and providing school and education kits. In the past few years the organization has been the driving force behind several back-to-school programs in Central African Republic, Congo, Liberia and Cote d`Ivoire are good examples.
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