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Madagascar’s ‘big sister’ programme helps girls stay in school

© UNICEF video
Thirteen-year-old Lanee was chosen by her teacher to be a ‘big sister” for first-grader Nadia. Lanee is proud of her new role and takes it seriously.

By Sabine Dolan and David McKenzie

MANJAKANDRINA, Madagascar, 11 July 2005 – Thirteen-year-old Lanee, who lives in this small village, has an important new responsibility: She is now a ‘big sister’ for her first-grade schoolmate, Nadia. Lanee’s new role is to be a helper and friend, by walking Nadia to school, playing with her during recess and lending a hand with homework.

Lanee takes her job very seriously. “In the morning, after getting ready, I go to fetch Nadia,” she says. “I wash her feet, I brush her hair, and I check her bag to see that she has everything she needs. And then we leave for school and I hold her hand.

“When we get to school, all the classes are already lined up. So I put Nadia with her class and I go to my class’s line.”

The ‘girl-to-girl strategy’

The ‘big sister’ programme, piloted in Madagascar with UNICEF support in 2001, seeks to help young girls stay in school. Teachers identify first-grade girls who appear to be most at risk of dropping out – the ‘little sisters’ – and pair them with ‘big sisters’ from the fourth and fifth grades. The older girls sign pledges to support their younger peers.

© UNICEF video
First-grader Nadia enjoys going to school. Her ‘big sister’ Lanee helps her with homework.

In addition to walking their ‘little sisters’ to school and helping with homework, the ‘big sisters’ advise the younger girls on hygiene and social skills, and work on building their confidence in the classroom.

“There are far fewer drop-outs amongst the little girls of this programme,” says UNICEF Education Officer Noro-Rakoto Joseph. “And even the bigger girls are far more motivated. It gives them a real sense of responsibility because the big girl takes the lead. She has to help the little girl, and it gives her real pride and joy.”

Lanee’s enthusiasm bears witness to her pride and joy in being a ‘big sister’. She follows Nadia’s progress closely. “Nadia is quite serious. She does well in class. When I teach her, she understands quickly what I’m trying to say.”

Government initiatives and UNICEF’s help make a difference

In the last two years, Madagascar’s government under President Marc Ravalomanana has made landmark decisions to revolutionize learning and make education accessible to all. Recent initiatives include:

  • abolition of all primary school fees
  • establishment of a school fund for each primary school
  • provision of a school kit for all primary school children
  • payment of teachers’ salaries previously paid by parents
  • a change in the school calendar to respond to community needs
  • and, most significantly, a revision of the curriculum from a rote memorization system to a competency-based learning system that responds more appropriately to the daily life of students

In recent years, Madagascar’s net enrolment rates have improved. In addition to the ‘big sister’ programme, UNICEF’s support for enrolment includes building water points and latrines in primary schools; without proper water and sanitation, children are more likely to drop out of school. UNICEF also encourages contracts between parents, students and teachers in an effort to keep children enrolled during the entire five year cycle.

As a result of these and other initiatives, in Madagascar the number of girls in school is equal to the number of boys, although girls in rural areas are still less likely to complete the primary cycle than boys.




Thirteen-year-old Lanee, from the village of Manjakandrina in Madagascar, describes her new responsibilities as a ‘big sister’ for her first-grade schoolmate Nadia.

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