Orphaned at a young age, Sharifa and her disabled sibling were raised by their grandmother in rural Tanzania. Unless money arrived from their extended family, they would go hungry. She relied on her teachers for food.
Nevertheless, Sharifa passed her primary-school exams and was offered a place at secondary school. “If food is a problem, how can I afford education?” her grandmother told her. Remaining at home, Sharifa’s yearning for education grew.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 33.3 million girls of primary and lower secondary school age are out of school. This number rises to 52.2 million when taking into account girls of upper secondary school age, according to Unesco – and 75 per cent of girls start primary school, but only 8 per cent finish secondary school, according to the Brookings thinktank. Poverty is the root cause. Children in the poorest countries are nine times more likely to be out of school than those in the richest. Yet if all adults had a secondary education, poverty would be reduced by two-thirds, found Unesco’s 2017 out-of-school policy paper.
Girls face more barriers to education than boys, such as responsibility for household chores, younger siblings or ill relatives.
Families bank on boys getting paid work and securing a girl’s future through marriage. Deeply embedded gender inequity also leads to girls lacking a sense of entitlement to education – a psychological barrier to learning.
Twenty-five years ago, Camfed – the Campaign for Female Education – established its community-led girls’ education programme in sub-Saharan Africa. Decades later, the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals agenda, emphasising quality secondary education and gender equity, increased global momentum. The World Bank is saying it, the Global Partnership for Education is saying it, the UN is saying it, and today Michelle Obama said it: educate girls and the returns not only benefit them and their families, but also their communities and nations.
Some countries lose more than $1 billion a year by failing to educate girls at the same level as boys, according to the Global Partnership for Education. Educated girls earn up to 25 per cent more for each year in secondary school, are three times less likely to become HIV positive and reinvest 90 per cent of their income in their families – whereas men reinvest 30-40 per cent, according to the World Bank. Educated mothers invest more in their children’s education. They have fewer, healthier children. Brookings research has established a vital link between girls’ education and climate change mitigation. Supporting a girl through school and on to a life of independence and leadership delivers dividends for generations, breaking the cycle of poverty that leads to economic instability and conflict, displacement and war.
Research shows that even when marginalised children attend school, many don’t learn there. February’s global education financing conference in Dakar shone a spotlight on this learning crisis. More than 617 million students are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics, according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics. Cost pressures mean that girls like Sharifa may be permanently left behind.
Camfed – which by the end of 2017 had supported more than 2.6 million children at government partner schools in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana and Tanzania – has also improved learning environments for more than 5 million children. We invest not only in the material needs of vulnerable children but also work with schools, teachers and our CAMA alumni network to develop life and study skills programmes that drive up learning outcomes for marginalised students. CAMA works with Camfed-trained teacher-mentors and their communities to strengthen support structures that keep girls in school, while creating opportunities for young women to thrive.
Sharifa’s story could have been one of those millions left behind. Instead, her teacher-mentor arranged a stipend to help cover the costs of her special diet and support for her disabled sibling, along with glasses she needs to read, write and learn. She’ll graduate into a structured support network of women who share a similar background.
While it may cost more to reach the most marginalised children, the impact per dollar spent provides greater value for money, meaning Camfed’s programme attains similar cost-effectiveness outcomes to ones that don’t reach the most marginalised.
“In today’s world, there is so much injustice – and most of the time the ones who are marginalised are missing their justice,” says Sharifa. She is already a keen advocate of the right to education. “I want to be a lawyer. I want to fight for the rights of women, children and the oppressed people in my community.”
Anke Adams is head of communications at Camfed International