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Burkina Faso: educate girls to prevent malnutrition

© UNICEF/WCARO/2008/Pirozzi

Helping women help themselves in Burkina Faso

Mamata Kabore, 12, wears a green t-shirt bearing the name of her country, Burkina Faso. She lives in Tamidou, a village of 600 inhabitants east of Ouagadougou, and goes to school on weekdays. It is a handsome building made of adobe, although its three classrooms are not big enough to accommodate the 200 pupils on the school register. Each morning, half of them have to study under a straw shelter.

Nevertheless, Mamata believes she is lucky to be at school at all. After class, she meets up with her older sister who, like many young girls in Burkina Faso, has never set foot inside a classroom (65% of girls go to school, compared to 76% of boys). After school, Mamata tells her sister what lesson the teacher gave pupils that day. “My sister always says she is sorry she doesn’t go to school,” Mamata says.

“But she learns the lesson well when I explain it to her.” The experts have learned their own “lesson”: research shows that mothers who have attended school have children whose nutrition and health is better. A child’s chances of survival, good nutrition and health increase with the mother’s level of education. In a country like Burkina Faso, where one child in five dies before the of five, girls’ education is quite literally matter of life and death. The connection between education nutrition is often indirect. At school, mothers-to-be do not actually learn to feed children better. But they will take better care of their families for a variety of reasons. Mothers who went to school have access more information of all kinds (and not only about nutrition). Educate mothers will prioritize better nutrition for their children

As a result, they equipped to make decisions concerning their lives and the health and nutrition their children. Furthermore, they have better chance of finding a better paid and this income will have a positive impact on the nutrition and health of their children. In Tamidou, when mothers are asked if women who went to school feed their children better, they giggle. “It’s obvious!” they say. Gathered together in front of the village school, they readily say that for them, girls' education is a priority. When Asseta Soudre is asked to say exactly what kind of future she expects for her daughters, this young mother talks not of what they might learn but of whom they might be. “I dream that they will be able to resist being forced into marriage,” she says. That was not the case for their mother who, despite her young age, has already given birth to six children. She lost two of the six when they were small, and she is determined to send the surviving four to school, including her daughters. “Girls who have been to school take better care of themselves, of their children and of their homes,” she says.

To encourage parents to send daughters to school, the government of Burkina Faso covers the cost of the first year’s enrolment. As a result, in a village like Tamidou, the overwhelming majority of girls now attend school. The poorest parents, however, still have to tighten their belts since they have to pay for school supplies and text books. Nevertheless, mothers say they are happy to have their daughters educated, even if that means certain sacrifices need to be made. Marceline Kabore says she has no intention of cutting corners when it comes to school expenses. “They have to learn to take care of themselves,” she says. “Unlike me. I’m poor. I have nothing.” When you talk to the women of Tamidou about sending their daughters to school, the subject of their powerlessness to stop polygamy comes up again and again. In polygamous households, large numbers of children must rely on the income of only one father.

Marceline Kabore has three fellow-wives who have all been pregnant in quick succession. “It is ignorance that makes people have so many children,” she says. “Mothers who went to school have fewer children than the rest. They are in better health and so are their children.” The mothers of Tamidou are full of hope as they are aware that their daughters are learning about much more than just reading and arithmetic. “One day, women will have important jobs,” predicts Alizeta Ouedraogo, a mother with two young daughters who both go to school. “I saw on television that, in some countries, women can even become president!”

Mrs. Ouedraogo watches television in the house of a teacher, one of the only people in the village to own a set, which he plugs into a car battery. Tamidou is not connected to a power line.

by Michel Arseneault





Malnutrition in the Sahel


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