Male advocates for girls education – Petersens story
By Noreen Chambers
What sets young Petersen Simahe apart from his peers is his passionate drive to get young girls who have dropped out of the school system back into classrooms.
And 18 girls who left school at various stages for different reasons have gone back to continue studies at the Kesevaka Primary School since Petersen became an active Girls Education Advocate (GEA) four years ago through UNICEFs Community Based Education Advocates (CBEA) program. aimed at increasing efforts to accelerate girls education in the country.
“I want to see change in my community, I want to see girls and women succeed in education and business, that’s my dream,” a clearly passionate Petersen explains in tok pisin.
He is only 26 years old, a committed and active youth and church leader who spends his time advocating for girls education in his Dunantina River Constituency in Henganofi District, Eastern Highlands Province.
“I recognised that this is a good thing and I wanted to help my community. My biggest dream is to see equal enrolment in 2015,” he stresses.
CBEA is part of the Accelerating Girls Education (AGE) initiative that was introduced in PNG in 2003 to eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education. In particular, AGE was introduced in three highlands provinces – Eastern Highlands, Western Highlands and Simbu – in response to disturbing statistics in gender gaps in these parts of the country.
UNICEF has identified Papua New Guinea as one of the countries in the world to accelerate efforts to eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education. The gender gap in the country is the highest in the whole of the Pacific region.
UNICEF has trained some 220 community based education advocates to carry out this role in communities. A big responsibility of the CBEAs is also to encourage girls who have dropped out of the education system to return to school. Between 2006 and 2009, a total of 396 girls returned to school in the Eastern Highlands Province.
Petersens task is not an easy one. His advocacy work covers four local level government areas in his constituency that is made up of some 15,000 plus people. The Dunantina River constituency is somewhat remote, located along Eastern Highlands Province and Madangs Gusap Valley border.
“My biggest challenge is convincing married girls who have left school to return. It’s very hard to get them back. I have to try to convince the girl, her husband, her husbands family and her own family, says Peterson.
His work has identified four main reasons girls drop out of school – lack of school fees, pregnant girls not allowed to return to school, girls leaving school due to family violence and abuse, and parents reluctance to send their girl child to school.
Petersen says that change is slowly coming about. People in his community are slowly realising that it is wrong to spend money on gambling when they can use that money to send their daughters to school.
The teachers at Kesevaka Primary School where most of Petersens girls have returned to school are also slowing changing their attitude.
“At first teachers didn’t agree for these girls to return to school,” Petersen explains. After a while the school reluctantly agreed to take the girls on after Peterson carried out some awareness at the school.
When Petersen introduced elements of child friendly schools to the teachers, they jumped at the opportunity and started supporting Peter in his work.
The school has allowed Petersen to be a member on the schools Board of Management (BOM)and has even provided a mega phone and allowed him time to do awareness sessions with teachers, the BOM and parents during school events.
In return, Petersen, with the help of his youth group in 2008, constructed a ‘haus meri’ for older girls to have some privacy during menstruation. Through his advocacy work, the school has also allocated two female staff members to attend to female student issues.
Petersens special moment in the course of his work came about in 2008 when he convinced Tahiti Snipie, a young mother to return to school to continue her grade 5 studies in 2008. Today she is in grade 8 and her son is in grade 3 at the same school.