In most of the communities where the Millennium Villages (MVP) work, girls are less likely to go to school, stay in school or do well. Education plays a particularly important role as a foundation for girls’ development towards productive adult life. It is also an intrinsic part of any strategy to address the gender inequalities that remains prevalent in many societies. The achievement of girls’ right to education can address some of societies’ deeply rooted inequalities that disadvantage and expose girls to vulnerability. Basic education for girls leads directly to better reproductive health, improved family health, reduced fertility rates, as well as lower rates of child mortality and malnutrition and a key in the fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS. Further, educating girls and women is an important step in overcoming poverty. Millennium Development Goals 2 and 3 reflect the commitment that female education has a strong relationship with many other development indicators, and that education is an indispensable tool for women empowerment and the reduction of poverty. Girls’ education and the promotion of gender equality in education thus become vital tools for accelerating rural development.
Despite benefits of girls’ education, gender disparities in education persist in many countries. These gaps are widest at secondary education yet it’s at this level where the greatest impact can be made on a girl’s life. Major hindrances to secondary education are mainly cost related and as a result, too few girls are able to pursue higher education from families with low economic status. Accordingly, girls suffer more from the effects of poverty because it costs more to educate a girl than a boy due to the double cost of tuition added to the perceived loss of her labor within the household (opportunity cost).
Reproductive health rated challenges impact heavily on girls than on boys. HIV pandemic for instance means added care responsibilities for girls on their already heavy workload. Similarly, in some communities in Africa, girls are married when they reach puberty, which means that they either drop out of secondary school or never enroll. The other challenge facing girls is early and unwanted pregnancies. In addition, puberty stage of development if not properly managed can have severe negative effect on girls’ performance and attendance in education. For instance girls from most disadvantaged households are absent for an average of three to five days a month during menstrual period. Attendance is undermined because girls do not have access to adequate protection such as sanitary pads. Irregular daily school attendance leads to poor academic performance. Similarly, schools located far away from home may contribute to parents often restricting adolescent girls’ movements out of fears for their safety. These are some of the factors that put education of girls in jeopardy.
The MVP girls’ education interventions employ a combination of incentives that stimulate both demand and supply interventions. The demand side interventions include: providing textbooks and other learning materials, providing sanitary pads to ensure daily school attendance (for instance Sauri provides sanitary towels to 2,040 girls in 28 primary schools), community awareness campaigns and providing scholarships for secondary education. The presence of a secondary school in manageable locality increases the chances that rural girls will make the transition from primary to secondary education. In cases were secondary schools are far from home, MVP supports safe residential facilities within a conducive environment for girls. For example, this intervention has worked in Koraro MVP (Ethiopia) where the only secondary school within the Village is about 35 km away. The project responded by providing safe accommodation facilities for girls coupled with other girl-focused interventions.
The MVP approach has also undertaken several interventions that stimulate supply for education. These include building more schools to reduce distance, classroom renovations, building boarding facilities for girls and as in the case of Dertu Millennium Village (Kenya), constructing separate latrines for boys and girls. Other interventions include:
Use of culturally sensitive approach to hold community advocacy forums – the aim is to educate parents on the important of girls’ secondary education. Such forums are useful platforms to mobilize parents’ involvement and contributions for greater project ownership and sustainability.
Strategic partnerships to address gender equality in education – partnerships are essential for more effectively and to avoid duplication of efforts. The MVP has undertaken affirmative action in awarding scholarships as well as school re-entry policy for instance in Sauri that supports girls ho had dropped out of school due to various factors (e.g. pregnancies) to re-join school.
Capacity development and training teachers on gender relations, guidance and counseling and other contemporary issues that enable teachers support girls’ education. Organizing girls’ empowerment forums that entail training for girls at school level on reproductive health, HIV/AIDS preventions and life skills. Training for girls is done within “safe space” conducive for girls needs. This approach enhances a community of openness and support among girls and to provide them with a safe–space and a private setting in which they are able to discuss reproductive health related topics, share experiences, seek advice, discuss their problems, and engage in confidence building activities as well as taking up leadership roles. Some of the MVP locations that have embraced this approach include Sauri (Kenya), Koraro (Ethiopia) and Mbola (Tanzania).
Support to secondary education for girls through scholarships–the aim of this intervention will be to increase transition rates in secondary schools by providing incentives in the form of scholarships. The Connect To Learn partnership is a promising initiative that will see more girls supported to pursue secondary education.
One key objective of the MVP school meals program is to act as an incentive to attract school-going-age children to school. Since the inception of the program, there has been tremendous improvement in attendance and enrollment in the schools. Girls’ participation in education has improved as a result.
The MVP has embraces girls’ education as a priority intervention because female education creates powerful poverty-reducing synergies and yields enormous intergenerational gains. This is because when women have more years of schooling, the returns flow not only to themselves, but to the next generation as well.
Susan Karuti is Education and Gender Coordinator at the MDG Centre in Nairobi.