International Day of the Girl Child is 11 October. This year’s Day focuses on innovating for girls’ education. Smart and creative use of technology, policies, partnerships and, most of all, the engagement of young people, themselves, are important for overcoming barriers to girls’ learning and achievement.
Bright, young students like Balkissa and Halissa have a chance to continue their education and break the cycle of early marriage and pregnancy, thanks to a scholarship programme identifying vulnerable girls in rural villages in the Niger.
ZINDER, Niger, 18 October 2013 – Balkissa Ado is 17 years old. She is bright and cheerful. And she is the first girl from her village of Garin Touji, in Zinder, in the eastern part of the Niger, who has continued her studies after primary school.
A chance for Balkissa to go to school
An eight-mile walk separates Garin Touji from the nearest secondary school.
Balkissa is one of 60 students supported by UNICEF with scholarships to continue their studies. The funds cover the cost of school materials, tutoring services, basics such as soap, and some pocket money, as well as the expenses of the girls’ host families, who otherwise could not bear the burden of another mouth to feed, in this poor area.
Balkissa’s parents never went to school. But her success at learning was all the encouragement her father, Ado Djibo, needed. He has also enrolled her six younger brothers and sisters in school. “All six!” he says, proudly.
“Without the scholarship, we could not sustain her studies to secondary school,” explains Ado Djibo. “We do not have the means.”
“We want her to continue studying,” he adds. “She will get her diploma and, later, a good job.”
Balkissa will have much studying to do in the coming years: She wants to be a nurse.
No scholarships, no girls
In the Niger, about 36 per cent of girls are married before the age of 15. Only 16 per cent attend middle school, and only half complete the cycle. Supporting girls past primary school is necessary to ensure that they complete their education, and to protect them from child marriage and early pregnancy.
According to the director of the secondary school in Yaouri, Kabirou Ibrah, “In 2011, there were no girls. In 2012, there were only three. And, you see, this year, thanks to UNICEF, there is up to 16 girls. Most students who do not have tutors and who live far abandon secondary school during the first year.”
UNICEF selected 500 girls from remote rural areas in the regions of Maradi and Zinder for the programme. Selection criteria included the girls’ distance from schools, social insecurity and academic achievement.
No school, no education
One community took charge of the distance issue to support the girls. The villagers of Nafi Karfi decided to build their own school. They bought land and erected mud and straw sheds and acquired classroom materials. The village now funds evening classes, drinking water and school supplies. Children of Nafi Karfi can continue their education path right in the village, as can children from nearby Garin Touji.
Of the 300 students at the Nafi Karfi school, a third are girls. Among them, 42 have a scholarship. School director Sabiou Ibrahim says, “These girls represent a model for the school and for the village.”
More to be done
The scholarship programme has helped a few hundred girls from rural villages have access to knowledge. But there are 16 million people in this country.
At the start of the next school year, the number of students at Nafi Karfi’s new school may well double. However, more work needs to be done to ensure the best learning environment possible for Nafi Karfi’s pupils. ‘School books’ are really photocopied texts, and the students sit on mats, rather than benches. There are no water points in the school, and there are no latrines.
For now, the combination of girls eager to learn, scholarships and grit of the community ensures that girls like 15-year-old Halissa Ado have access to education that they might not otherwise have. “Since my father died two years ago, we don’t have enough food at home,” says Halissa, who is now enrolled in Grade 5. “If my mother had money, she would pay for my studies … but she cannot afford it.”
Story by Nathalie Prevost