Drive to get girls back into class

5th May 2000 at 01:00
AWA NDIQYE, 15, works as a domestic, cooking, ironing clothes and minding her employer's child in downtown Dakar. She says that she left home two years ago to help earn some money for her parents - her father works in a fish factory, her mother is a washerwoman - and to buy some nice things to wear.

For Awa, entering child labour did not mean dropping out of education, because she had never been to school. When her time came to enrol, her father did not have a job to support her.

Awa suffered from the low priority given to girls' education in families who cannot afford the small extra cost of school for all their children. As United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan explained to the conference, when a family income needs to be supplemented or when illness or disaster strikes, girls' education is the first to be interrupted so they can go to work or look after the other children and the sick, a major reason why, globally, two-thirds of children not going to school are girls.

"Nothing illustrates this more amply than Aids," Kofi Annan said. "Girls are more likely than boys to care for a sick family member and help to keep the household running. Deprived of basic schooling, they are denied information about how to protect themselves, risk being forced into early sexual relations and become infected, paying a deadly price for not getting an education."

Launching a global initiative to educate girls, he said the UN would help free up funds to offer advice and support for education reforms and debt relief for action plansin each country. These would be drawn up within a year with the aim of ending gender disparities in all countries by 2005. Governments will have to demonstrate a priority for girls in their education strategy to qualify for aid.

To underline his message that sweeping advances in education for girls are possible even in poor countries, he visited Ndiareme B school on the western outskirts of Dakar, which has raised the number of girls successfully completing six years of primary school from 21 per cent to 42 per cent in the past three years.

This kind of progress is mirrored nationally in Senegal where the gross enrolment of girls rose from 50 per cent to 58 per cent between 1996 and 1999.

Magatte Mbow, director of the school, which operates on double shifts to fit the children in, said: "We do a lot of social mobilisation - we go into the mosques and market squares to convince parents to let their girls come to school."

The United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF) has trained the region's directors and teachers in planning and monitoring progress in schools, and mounted media campaigns to change attitudes.

Another approach encouraged by UNICEF is to offer evening schooling to the large number of girls such as Awa who have left villages to become domestics in the city. Awa now spends two hours a night in literacy and numeracy classes. On Sundays educational videos are shown on issues such as preventing the spread of Aids. "I want to know how to read and write - and how to deal with the world," Awa said.

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