SAINT LOUIS, SENEGAL—Despite the dusty courtyard between classrooms at the CEM Bango secondary school, headmaster and teacher Mohad Sow’s light blue traditional boubou robe was crisp and fresh as he swept into his office to greet visitors. After a flurry of hellos, the greying Mr. Sow took a white square piece of paper with a bunch of handwritten numbers on it. “Here, have a look” he said, explaining that there were overall 236 girls and 250 boys registered in his school. Then moving down the paper, he showed that for each school grade of his lower secondary classes (the equivalent of middle school in the United States), the number of girls dropped off each year: in Grade One there were 70 girls, in Grade Two there were 61 girls and by Grade Three, only 43 girls were still attending classes.
According to Mr. Sow, who said the vast majority of his students’ parents were cattle herders in this arid village about four kilometers from Saint Louis, there were a few reasons why girls kept dropping out of school: teen marriage (some girls get married as young as 13 in this part of Senegal), teen pregnancy and poverty. Rural girls from poor families here (but something that is uniformly the case across the developing world) also drop out of school because with working parents, they need to stay at home to cook, clean, wash and take care of their younger siblings. Looking exasperated and concerned, Mr. Sow asked a rhetorical question that both his teaching counterparts and education experts across the globe often struggle over: “What do we do to keep these girls in school?”
In many places around the world, teenage girls find themselves at a crossroads facing difficult barriers when it comes to their schooling. While they hopefully have had access to primary education as younger girls (thanks to things like the Millennium Development Goals, which had primary education as a major global focus), things change for them as they hit their early teen years; lower secondary and secondary schooling long left off the agenda of NGOs and international aid organizations, may not be as readily nearby with girls having to travel great distances (sometimes in unsafe or desolate areas) to get to school. Mr. Sow, for example, said that many of his girls have to walk at least 15 minutes to get to school, which in the dark can be a scary prospect.
And though there may be no tuition fees for secondary schooling, there can be hidden expenses (in Development speak they are called “opportunity costs”), which could include everything from school uniforms and books to security and, sometimes, even small bribes to teachers. There are also social and cultural barriers that girls face in their adolescence—as Mr. Sow pointed out, girls are often needed at home for cooking, cleaning, farming and helping to watch younger siblings and, considering that in many cultures across the globe males are seen as the future breadwinners, there is often more of an incentive to educate adolescent boys.
There is also the barrier of teen marriage; in the developing word, one in nine girls is married before the age of fifteen. An adolescent girl married off lifts the financial burden from her family and passes it on to her new in-laws, so there is little incentive from either side to see their child or daughter-in-law educated, as it is seen that she now should make a home—including babies—for her husband. Even if adolescent girls have the opportunity to go to secondary school, because they are hitting puberty going to the latrine at school can be a huge stress. It’s not just fears of being attacked on the way to a bathroom (one study by UNESCO and the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative found that 30% of rapes that happen in South Africa take place in or around school) but also the fact that bathrooms are often unisex, meaning a girl will feel uncomfortable in terms of privacy, especially if she is menstruating. She may worry about being made fun of by boys (and other girls) in her class and she may likely have little access to things like sanitary napkins and fresh water to clean herself.
Adolescent girls may also face religious or social pressures in their homes or in their communities, which may frown down on girls who are educated past primary or lower secondary school. Girls also face an uphill educational battle if they live in a community that has struggled after a natural disaster, like in Nepal where over 1 million children were out of school and 36,000 classrooms were damaged by the earthquake in April 2015. Conflict and war also disrupt education for children and adolescents; according to a UNICEF report in 2016 nearly 24 million children living in 22 countries affected by conflict do not attend school, and, according to a 2015 paper “Education in Emergencies and Protracted Crises: Towards a Strengthened Response,” it is girls who are disproportionally affected.
In northern Nigeria in 2014 Boko Haram, a terrorist organization whose name translates into “Western education forbidden”, kidnapped nearly 300 girls from their secondary boarding school in Chibok to serve as “wives” for militants and possibly forced into becoming terrorists (21 girls were released in October 2016). There are also millions of adolescent girls who are orphans, being raised by their grandparents, relatives, neighbors or even themselves— with education often left off the priority list.
Secondary school girls, however, are also at the age where they are starting to articulate their feelings and opinions, and to fight for things they believe in. Their dreams for their adult life start to not only become more nuanced but many young adolescents also understand what things they must do to work towards those goals. For example when she was 14, Malala Yousafzai, the girls’ education advocate and youngest ever Nobel Prize winner, was shot in the Swat Valley in Pakistan for speaking up about the rights of girls’ secondary education.
There are a number of organizations including CAMFED, Room to Read, Plan International, the Population Council and Girl Up that are helping to empower not only adolescent girls through campaigns like radio and television programs and girl groups, but are also working with parents, brothers, fathers and wider communities to encourage them to support education. The Sustainable Millennium Goals (SDGs), introduced at the United National General Assembly in September 2015, have focused not only on universal secondary education but also on gender equality for women—and girls. As Lawrence Summers, then the World Bank Chief Economist said back in 1992, “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest return investment in the developing world.” Mr. Sow, for one, certainly agrees with that assessment.
All photos courtesy of Ginanne Brownell Mitic