International Day of the Girl Child: Opening pathways for girl’s education

There is overwhelming evidence that educating girls leads to stronger communities, healthier families and improved economies. Yet girls around the world still face challenges and barriers when pursuing education.

Although progress has been made in the last two decades, the most marginalized groups, like refugee girls, continue to be left behind. On International Day of the Girl Child, find out how WUSC and partner Windle Trust Kenya are opening pathways for girls’ education at all levels in the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps and surrounding communities.

Burgeoning enrollment in primary schools across the developing world is a positive trend that can bring huge benefits to the world’s poorest people and to global society as a whole. But enrollment is just the beginning of the story. Sadly, there is a huge disparity between who stays, who learns and who succeeds in school - and overwhelmingly it is not girls.

Unpacking the global school figures reveals startling disparities to the disadvantage of girls, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where the gap between boys and girls is growing. Data shows that the widening gap is characterized by three factors: gender, poverty and location. On average, a poor, rural girl in Sub-Saharan Africa spends 8.3 fewer years in school than a rich, urban boy. In 2010, the primary completion rate for rich, urban boys was 87%, while the primary completion rate of poor, rural girls was only 25% (UNESCO, 2014).

It is clear that the learning equation does not play out equally for girls compared to boys.

So why is educating a girl such a challenge? World University Service of Canada (WUSC) has been tackling the problem in the refugee camps of Kakuma and Dadaab in northern Kenya where live some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged girls in the world. Education statistics are dismal: girls’ attendance rates are lower than boys, their drop-out rates are higher, schools lack basic facilities for girls, and patriarchal attitudes and harmful cultural practices work against girls at school and in the community.  Gender-based violence and fear of early pregnancy are leading causes of absenteeism and high drop-out rates for girls.  Even getting girls to school safely is an issue.

Once enrolled, girls continue to face more challenges than boys to stay in school. Girls are much more likely to be pulled out or to drop out of school than boys; they carry a heavier domestic load and child care responsibilities, leaving them little time to study or even to attend classes. Girls’ struggles to keep up in school have the double-edged effect: 1-reinforcing stereotypes about girls being unable to learn and 2-increasing the opportunity costs for families who keep their girls in school. The fact remains that poor families are more likely to send a son to school than a daughter because marrying a daughter brings immediate benefits of status, security and desperately needed income.

Overcoming the barriers girls face is central to the mandate of WUSC and Windle Trust Kenya (WTK). Our goal is to ensure quality education for thousands of extremely marginalized girls in the refugee camps and host communities of Dadaab and Kakuma. Our programs work at the primary, secondary, tertiary and vocational and community levels to open up pathways for girls to pursue their education. 

Poverty, location and gender are complex issues that are best addressed via integrated, strategic programs that respond directly to the web of challenges girls face. We have learned that tackling one issue or one barrier at a time is not enough: we must have programs that work at multiple levels to create programming that closes gaps in the education system so that girls do not fall through the cracks. Staying in school for girls means knocking down as many barriers and challenges to learning as possible.  Success comes from offering packages of interventions and targeted supports to girls. These include such things as improved learning facilities, child friendly teaching and learning, remedial classes and inspiring girls to succeed by presenting female role models. Innovative partnerships and targeted programs harness community and family support and foster environments where girls can stay in school longer.  WUSC’s Student Refugee Program (offering university scholarships to refugee girls) and the UK Aid-funded Kenya Equity in Education Project (KEEP) (improving retention and learning) are examples of such programs.

As we work to open these pathways, we recognize that the need is still greater than our response. While we are making headway and removing barriers, more such strategic integrated interventions are needed for more girls to access the quality education that help will help change the world.  

By Ellyn Floyd, Girl’s Education Advisor at World University Service of Canada. WUSC is a Canadian non-profit organization working to provide education, employment and empowerment opportunities to disadvantaged youth in 20 developing countries. 

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