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Rallying around the right to education in Mali

Koumbake Photo - Around his classroom
© UNICEF Mali/2017/Luthi

By Eliane Luthi


In Mali, only 45% of children complete primary schooling. UNICEF-supported school management committees are reversing the trend

"There are a lot of kids here who drop out before they finish school,” says Koumbake Keita, 14 years old. “Those kids are in the gold fields."

Koumbake himself is about to finish sixth grade and wants to continue school until the very end. But his experience of school hasn’t been a continuous one, either.

The first time he attempted sixth grade, he dropped out early in the school year to join his uncle living in Kenieba, the nearby main town. There, he worked in a garage for a year, doing an apprenticeship to repair motorcycles.

“I liked it,” he remembers. “I was earning something like CFA 2500 [USD 4.00] per day.”

Four dollars a day may not sound like much, but compared to his home village of Kossaya, where most families struggle to earn enough to buy pens and notebooks for school children, it is far beyond what the average family could dream of. For families and children living in poverty in isolated communities, the pull of money is so strong that education often takes a backseat.

Poverty is something Koumbake’s family knows a lot about. When his father died when Koumbake was only 3, Koumbake’s family was plunged further into poverty. Living with his mother, older brother and three sisters, finishing school seemed like a luxury when the need for income was so dire.

It’s a pattern that school authorities here have seen so much that solutions seem limited.  "Kids are dropping out of school and often we don't even know what to tell them," recognizes Manga Ousmane Monekata, an advisor of the mayor of nearby Faraba. "It's all linked to poverty."

The issue isn’t exclusive to Kayes region: across Mali, only 45% of children complete primary schooling. Poverty, child labor and child marriage, and a lack of recognition of the importance of education for children all contribute to children dropping out of school – or at times never enrolling in the first place.

Here in Kayes, near the Guinean border, an additional factor is the draw of the gold mines. Nearly all economic activities here are linked to formal mining operations or informal gold fields. In addition to work that can be found in the actual mines, other types of work have appeared to support the industry. Bigger towns, like Kenieba, have turned into transit and logistics hubs – offering attractive jobs linked to the transportation of minerals and workers.

Adults and children are both attracted to the different opportunities, and at times when adults move to find work, they bring the children with them.

"The main problem that parents always mention here is poverty," confirms Salif Kebe, principal of Kossaya primary school. "So they might take one child out of school, and leave the other one there. Or they might say the child needs to come with me."

UNICEF’s strategy of strengthening community involvement in schools, through initiatives like school management committees, is going a long way in addressing this complex issue. School management committees, made up of 14 community members including village leaders, contribute to running schools by identifying issues with school infrastructure - such as classrooms and latrines and fencing around the courtyard – and supplies for teachers and children. They also play a growing role in spreading awareness in communities about the right to education for every child, and encouraging parents who have taken their children out of school to send them back.

“This type of involvement increases buy-in for education throughout the community,” explains Elena Locatelli, Chief of Education at UNICEF Mali. “When the entire community is helping to keep the school running, education becomes important to everyone. Ultimately, that means more children enroll in school, and more of them finish school.”

The Kossaya school management committee is what the made the difference in Koumbake’s life. While he was repairing motorcyles in Kenieba, members of the committee talked to his older sister, a respected member of his family who finished school and now has a job. The committee asked for her support in bringing Koumbake back to school.

“She came to see me in Kenieba and talked to me, telling me to go back to school,” he remembers. “She said that if I went back to school, later on I could become a teacher or have a good job.”

Nowadays, he is back at school and getting an average grade of 5 out of 10 in class – a modest score, he realizes, but one he is trying his hardest to improve further to pursue his dream. He spends most of his time studying his favorite subjects, reading and math.

“I’d like to become a doctor to take care of people,” he says.

Kossaya’s school management committee was set up two years ago thanks to support from UNICEF and the Government of Japan. Since then, they have helped bring several vulnerable children, including Koumbake, back to school.

The committee is hard at work spreading the word about the benefits of education within the village.

“We explain to parents that mentalities change when someone goes to school,” says Keita, the president of the committee. “Even for farmers. Those that farm who have been to school will farm better than those who haven’t.”

At the beginning of the school year, the committee gathers all the parents at a general assembly to sensitize them on the importance of education. They give informal advice to parents over tea and while working in the farms.

 “We show parents that when you have knowledge, no one can take that away from you,” says Keita. “But in the gold fields, you may not make it. And when you are older, you won't be strong enough to work in the gold fields anyway.”

The committee also supports children at risk of drop out by pooling money to buy school materials for them. "One child told us he had nothing to go to school,” remembers Keita. “So we gave him notebooks and pens so he could go back."

Without being an official member of the school management committee, Koumbake has nonetheless become an informal ambassador for education in Kossoya.

"Often I tell kids to study,” he says as he bends over his French homework. “Because if you study you can become a teacher, or a policeman."




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