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Still a case of cooks rather than books

African nations are beginning to pay some attention to issues of gender and sexual equality but the education of women and girls is still woefully inadequate.

This is the view of Esi Sutherland-Addy, Ghana's former deputy minister of education, who last month addressed an international conference at London University's Institute of Education on increasing educational opportunities for African women and girls.

Ms Sutherland-Addy said the involvement of multi-national agencies and foreign non-governmental organisations had forced African nations to put gender issues "into the rhetoric of their development politics".

Many countries had started gathering data about the number of girls attending school, drop-out rates, levels of achievement, and the incidence of illiteracy among women, and some had begun to try to improve access to education.

However, the economic crisis sweeping Africa meant that countries which had made education a priority after independence were now having to cut back and many were struggling to meet the ever-growing demand for places.

In some cases, parents were having to contribute increasing amounts towards their children's education due to government cuts. And poor families almost always sent their sons in preference to their daughters.

However, cultural attitudes were also to blame. Many Africans still believed a woman's place was in the home. Schools tended to reinforce such stereotypes, encouraging girls to study subjects such as dressmaking and cookery, while boys did woodwork and technology.

Furthermore, schools were not flexible enough to allow for the fact that in poor families, girls were often expected to work in the fields, or do the housework and look after younger siblings while the mother went out to work.

Girls comprised two thirds of the school-age children in Africa who weren't attending lessons - a fact often ignored. "I challenge the notion that women and girls themselves aren't interested in learning, they are, but there are so many barriers," said Ms Sutherland-Addy.

The picture for African women in this country is not all rosy either. Former teacher Dame Jocelyn Barrow, currently deputy chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council, told the conference, convened by The Africa Centre that women had come a long way since she arrived in Britain from Trinidad 36 years ago. Then, female teachers were paid less than their male counterparts, and schools were given less money for girls than boys.

"Now, Britain is further advanced in terms of equal opportunities legislation for black people than any other European Union member state," she said. However, there was still a long way to go. "Black women in this country wonder who they are and what identity they are to give their children. We need to get the curriculum changed and the culture of African and Caribbean women taken into account," Dame Jocelyn added.

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