Basic education and gender equality

Mothers’ zeal in the Gambia gets girls into school

© UNICEF Gambia/2005/Stark-Merklein
Fatou Bah, President of Sare Samba’s Mothers’ Club, and Haddy Mbye, Chair of the local Parents-Teachers’ Association, surrounded by additional members of the Mothers’ Club.

SARE SAMBA & JATTABA, The Gambia, 27 June 2005 - The young actor steps forward. “My daughter will not go to school. There is no value in these western teachings. She will stay at home, do the cooking and find a husband.” He stamps his foot; the audience laughs.

The performance in Sare Samba, a village in the Gambia’s Lower River Division, depicts a familiar scene in surrounding rural farming communities, where girls are raised to work in the home or fields and prepare for early marriage.

But in Sare Samba, change is in the air.

“The world is changing, and even in a small country like ours, things are changing,” says Fatou Bah, president of Sare Samba’s Mothers’ Club. “If we don’t educate our children, we will be left out. It’s becoming clear that in today’s world, without education, we lose.”

The Sare Samba Mothers’ Club is one of 90 Mothers’ Clubs in the Gambia. They were created by the Gambia Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWEGAM) and UNICEF, for women who want to ensure their daughters have more opportunities in life than they did.

The clubs are instrumental in Gambia’s drive for universal education and girl-friendly schools. They run income-generating projects to pay for school books, uniforms, shoes and other schooling costs not covered by the government.

In Sare Samba, for example, the women produce soap and resell groundnuts - milled with a machine provided by UNICEF - and grow vegetables for school meals on a plot donated by the community. They also work with Parent-Teachers’ Associations and other groups - such as the young actors - in door-to-door campaigns to convince parents to enroll their daughters in school.

© UNICEF Gambia/2005/Stark-Merklein
In a skit performed by young actors in Sare Samba, a remorseful father regrets that he didn’t allow his daughter to go to school.

The success is evident: within six months of the first door-to-door campaign, the Sare Samba student population jumped from 69 to 132. Eighty of them are girls. 

In Jattaba, another community with an active Mothers’ Club, a trust fund pays scholarships to poor children; mothers cook a daily meal with food donated by the World Food Programme; impregnated bed nets are distributed amongst students; and mothers are given ‘seed money’ to help set up income-generating activities.

Though dropout rates have fallen, many parents remain suspicious of ‘western’ education, and what is taught at school is not always deemed pertinent in daily lives.

“When kids finish school, they don’t want to farm, but they can’t find other jobs. They become a liability for parents,” says Alhagi Kumba Touray, chief of a neighbouring village, adding, “we need more skills centers that can teach them a trade.”

In both Sare Samba and Jattaba, where neonatal care is a predominantly male practice, it is hoped that girls will train as doctors and midwives.

Government, non-governmental organizations and donor agencies provide resources for scholarship trust funds, school construction, toilets, water wells, meals and other interventions to get more children into school and keep them there.

When research conducted in 2003 indicated that some parents didn’t send their children to school because the school calendar conflicted with planting and harvesting cycles, during which children’s help is needed, the government adapted the calendar taking these seasons into consideration.

In response to a study last year that revealed girls’ vulnerability to frequent sexual harassment by adults in schools, the government swiftly issued a policy that punishes perpetrators.

The efforts are bearing fruit: overall enrolment rates went up to 91 per cent in 2004, from 85 per cent in 2001, when the UNICEF-supported girl-friendly-school initiative was launched. Girls’ enrolment went up from 62 per cent in 2001 to 84 per cent in 2004, with a gender gap of only 2 per cent at primary level.



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