By Louis Vigneault-Dubois
ABOBO, Côte d’Ivoire, 16 August 2010 – Habibata Ouattara was 17 years old when she was removed from school and forced to marry a man her family had chosen for her. Today, as the Secretary-General of a local School Girl Mothers’ Club – known by the acronym CMEF – Ms. Ouattara strives to ensure that girls in her community stay in school and complete their education.
Girls in Côte d’Ivoire and around the world still face many challenges when it comes to completing a quality education. Increasingly however, women’s groups like CMEFs are making important contributions towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals on access to education and women’s empowerment.
The Agnikro CMEF in Abobo, a populous suburban area in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, was founded last year. Its goal is to raise money for small improvements in the local school and to support families who do not have the financial means to send their daughters to school.
To this end, the group of about 30 mothers decided to open a rice shop on a bustling street of Abobo. Every day the mothers take turns selling their rice bags, with each mother working about five hours per shift, four shifts per week. To set up their shop, the CMEF benefited from a micro-credit loan of $400. Each time the group finishes selling a whole bag of rice, it reimburses part of the credit and receives another bag to replace it.
With this arrangement, the CMEF makes a profit of about $10 per day – which is automatically invested in girls’ education.
Obstacles to education
Girls’ education is not taken for granted in Côte d’Ivoire. According to a 2009 ‘State Report on the Situation of Education,’ a boy has on average a 76 per cent chance to attend primary school and a girl only a 66 per cent chance. Only about 20 per cent of girls have access to secondary education.
Since the beginning of Côte d’Ivoire’s socio-political crisis in 2002, basic social services delivered by the government have largely collapsed, especially in the north-central and western parts of the country. This includes birth registration facilities. According to a recent national survey, birth registration dropped from 72 per cent before the crisis to 55 per cent today, which means that only about one birth out of two is registered. Children who are not registered with birth certificates can attend school, but they are not allowed to sit for final primary examinations because they cannot prove their identity.
In addition, girls are frequently enrolled in school for a few years but then drop out to become domestic workers or get married. Worse still, some leave school after suffering sexual violence at the hands of peers and teachers. The CMEFs now advocate for girls in their communities and put pressure on families to keep all of their children in school.
“Families have to understand that even if a girl gets married, she can still go to school,” said Ms. Ouattara. “Marriage is no excuse for a girl to stop going to school.”
Change from the bottom up
UNICEF is supporting more than 40 CMEFs in Côte d’Ivoire. Since 2006, it has also led the establishment of a national United Nations Girls Education Initiative (UNGEI) network which brings together government, local, UN and civil society partners to ensure that girls have access to safe, high-quality education.
For its part, the Agnikro CMEF in Abobo has been able to provide financial assistance to about 10 families since its inception. In particular, the funds help to facilitate the administrative procedure for registering girls. The cost of registration ranges from $10 to $20 – a huge sum of money in a country where half of the population lives on less than a dollar per day.
The group’s success has encouraged its expansion into the sale of other products such as cooking oil and soap. Its members hope to convince more mothers to join, or to set up similar clubs throughout the country.
“We have to take the education of our girls in our own hands,” said Ms. Ouattara.