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Teachers Forum
April, 2003

Improving Girls’ Education Through a Multi-Pronged Approach
in Eritrea
An Interview with
Halima Mohammed Mahmud,
a trainer at the Asmara Teachers Training Institute (ATTI)

Interview Conducted by
Yeshi Haile
Education Programme UNICEF Eritrea

Photographs courtesy of
Berhane Demoz,
Ministry of Education Asmara
Halima Mohammed Mahmud


Halima is a 32 year old young mother with 2 children and expecting a third child. She completed her primary and middle school at Zero School, run by the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF) in the late seventies.

She completed high school after the liberation of Eritrea in Asmara. She has a diploma in accounting from the University of Asmara in Eritrea. She got her Masters in Linguistics from SOAS in London. She also had some training in teacher education in London and in Eritrea. She is at the moment one of the female teacher trainers (among 3 others) at the Asmara Teachers’ Training Institute (ATTI).

Related Links on UNICEF

Accelerating Progress in Girls' Education
This document outlines a strategy for accelerating progress on Girls' Education in order to meet the goal of gender equality in primary and secondary education by 2005. This is the first credibility challenge of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Education for All (EFA) goals.

Barriers to Girls' Education, Strategies and Interventions
Explore such areas for analysis as direct and indirect costs, then view the possible findings / causes, broad strategies and possible interventions.

The Barriers to Education from a Gender Perspective
If we examine some of the barriers to a quality education through a gender lens, we find that for girls the hurdles are, for the most part, higher and more frequent - simply because they are girls.

5 key Dimensions of Quality Education
For UNICEF, "quality education" is characterized by 5 key dimensions, in which girls often fare very poorly.

Girls' Education in Eritrea
Barriers and Future Plans

Children face drought in Eritrea and Ethiopia
UNICEF Press Release, 6 December, 2002

Statistical Data on Eritrea
from the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey

The Girl Child
Discussion and resources from Voices of Youth
Question: When did you start teaching? What have been some of the challenges you faced in getting girls to education?

Answer: I started teaching in the liberated areas of Eritrea under the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1984, when I was 14 years of age. I had finished middle school and along with other students were sent to educate our people all over the liberated areas. I taught languages in Asmat, Endlal and Rora in Anseba region. Among many of the challenges I faced while teaching grades 1-3 children in the boarding school in Bakla were problems related to early marriage. Parents wanted to give their children in marriage as early as 10 years of age and we the teachers were trying to discourage this and we held discussions to convince parents to let their children continue education. Sometimes we even tried to intervene. One such case was that of Zahra, who was a young student then and her parents wanted to marry her off to a man twice her age. She wanted to continue with her education and we hid her with us for some weeks until the parents gave up and called off the wedding. Zahra finished her education and is now employed by the Eritrean Air Force in Asmara and happily married to a man of her choice. There were also other girls, who through our interventions were able to continue with their studies.

Q: Did your interference cause problems with the parents?

A: Not at all. In fact, I have been able to maintain good relations with most of the girls in those areas and their parents. The parents realise now the benefits to educating girls as they see their daughters doing well, but also married and supporting them. But then there were also other interventions that helped us.

Q: What were the other interventions?

A: All the teachers were freshly trained student teachers like myself from Zero School, a school opened in 1976 by the EPLF. The EPLF believed in women’s liberation as well and so was able to invest in girls’ education and there was a lot of emphasis on the benefits of girls’ education and all the teachers were aware and did try to improve on the situation. Simultaneously, there was a programme by the health sector on catering Mother and Child Health that was highly regarded by the community as it addressed their basic needs in mother and child related illnesses. There was a nurse and member of the EPLF, Ms. Asefash Gulbet, who through the health interventions was able to win the hearts of the communities. The communities adored her and the interaction with the communities was exemplary. Working in such areas, where parents and communities were receptive made our education tasks easy. On top of this, as I mentioned earlier we had very committed teachers and there were a number of female student teachers like myself. We were also setting up rudimentary boarding facilities then and this helped ease the burdens of households meeting the indirect costs to education.

Q: In view of your experiences, what do you feel are some of the strategies to be adopted to improve girls’ education?

A: One such strategy is to empower the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) with the inclusion of female members of the communities. For instance, I have a son in Dahlak Primary School and all the members of the PTA in the school are males. It is similar in other places too. Efforts must be made to include women in the committees as well. All schools have parents’ days during the year, which can be used to promote awareness for girls’ education. Early marriage is another hindrance to girls’ education and though legally a girl is eligible for marriage only after 18 years of age, few parents especially in the rural areas follow this. Therefore, there is need for more sensitisation of parents and communities at large on the benefits to households of girls’ education. Poverty at the household level has meant for some families sending boys instead of girls to schools. Establishment of boarding schools could ease the economic burdens of households especially when they reach middle and secondary levels. In such situations teachers are critical and their level of understanding of girls’ education needs to increase. More female teachers need to be trained and recruited. Interventions that contribute to improving the health situation of the communities need to increase and be inter-related with education interventions. The gender-training manual that’s being developed can also help but only if teachers use them properly. In such cases recognition should be given to teachers who are gender fair in their teaching and successful in overall class performance.

Halima while teaching at the ATTI

Another important strategy is reaching the girls themselves. Girls have to be sensitised on the way they relate to boys. They need to be confident, their self-esteem raised and encouraged through various incentives to perform better, as ensuring only their enrolment will not be enough. Parents, especially mothers, should be sensitised so that they allocate equal household chores to both boys and girls. Overall, a multi-pronged approach will be necessary to bring about meaningful results in the lives of the girls.

Q: What are your views on the recently revised gender training manual?

A: I had taught trainees using the previous manual developed in 1996. It was given for only two weeks at the end of the year and I don’t think it did make much impact. It was not integrated into the curriculum and no tests were given at the end of the training and therefore there was not much interest among the trainees themselves.

The gender training this year was different. The best part was the textbook analysis, which showed us clearly the gender bias in our textbooks. In the beginning a few of the core trainers did not accept the analysis as there is a lot of complacency in the way we use languages and feelings were that it couldn’t have done it any other way. But then the illustrations provided by the analyst indicated that there needs to be care and gender sensitivity in the language we use, as there are a lot of words used which totally ignore the presence of the girl child. It was thought provoking for many of us, but this kind of analysis needs to be done more often and reminders should be used to really put us in the right perspective.

Q: Any other last suggestions?

A: First of all we have to believe that there has to be a change in our attitude and the way we do things. Second, it is time we break the silence and start talking of sexual harassment whether in class or outside of class. Third, the manual is good but we shouldn’t be limited to that, and it should be able provoke more discussions among teachers with parents and also the girls themselves. To sum up, concerted efforts should be made to improve the situation and create a gender fair environment both in school and outside of the school.

Previous Related Interviews

"Expanding Educational Opportunities for Girls in Zimbabwe"
   December, 2002

"Not Accepting that Girls Should Feel Inferior in Senegal"
  - January, 2003

"Early Marriage and Girls' Education in Ethiopia"
  - October, 2002

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Last revised April 1, 2003
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