School's still out for girls

The United Nations has failed to deliver on its promise of equal access to education. Kim Sengupta reports on how the exclusion of female students undermines economic progress
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Indy Politics

For Rahima al Sayyad the day starts at five in the morning looking after the family cattle, and does not end until 10 in the evening, when she finishes cleaning the house. In between she walks an hour and a half under a scorching sun to go to school.

Rahima, 11, lives in an impoverished region of Somaliland, one of the poorest countries in the world. The school is a small tent crammed with 60 boys and girls of different ages, some of them squatting on the floor because of a shortage of desks and chairs.

But there is a thirst for knowledge and the hope of rewards it may bring that one does not often come across in more fortunate, affluent societies.

"We do not have enough books, or writing pads or pencils, so it is very hard," said Rahima. "I also get very tired because I have to work after finishing my lessons. But I enjoy learning and I want it to continue as long as possible.

"It is very important for girls to get an education. My mother did not get this chance, she says all the time. I want to be a teacher, but I do not think my parents can let me stay at school for that long. We are very poor."

Despite the problems and an uncertain future, Rahima has at least had a start on the first rung of the ladder and, as such, is one of the lucky few among the dispossessed of the Third World.

A report published today shows that even the most basic education for children remains an unaffordable luxury for a huge number of families. High costs, discrimination, poverty and perennial conflicts have led to 100 million children - 60 million of them girls - being denied schooling.

Successive studies have shown, apart from the moral and ethical dimensions, educating girls contributes greatly to the overall well-being of a community. There are reductions in the rates of malnutrition, infant mortality and HIV/Aids, and greater economic growth.

Education leads not only to female empowerment but also, the evidence shows, it introduces the family's children into a culture of reading which does not appear to happen when it is only the fathers who receive lessons.

Western governments and the United Nations have spoken publicly about the intrinsic benefits and the imperative of allowing access to education for females. But little of this has translated into tangible results. Instead, in many countries a combination of lack of resources, lawlessness and, in some Muslim states, the influence of conservative clerics, have reversed what little gains have been made in the past.

The new figures have been produced by the British charity Save the Children, which has pioneered girls' schooling of the type Rahima is benefiting from in Somaliland's Togdheer region.

The report, 60 Million Girls, maintains that little but lip service has been paid to the UN's Millennium Development Goal of ensuring that by 2005 as many girls would go to school as boys.

"UN member states have failed to meet the target. In more than 70 countries girls are still less likely than boys to go to school ... in Ethiopia, for example, nearly three quarters of girls do not go to schools. In the UK, it is less than 1 per cent.

"Failure to reach the target on girls' education results in a million unnecessary child and maternal deaths a year. Babies born to mothers who have been to primary school are twice as likely to live beyond five years of age."

The next part of the UN's Millennium Goal is that by 2015 every child would be able to complete primary school. But the feeling among many involved in Third World education projects is that this looks a very distant, fading dream unless drastic steps are taken by the rich world. The 10 worst-affected countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, where 20 million girls are failing to get an education. In Somalia, a state in anarchy, 89 per cent of girls do not go to school. In Niger, facing mass starvation, it is 72 per cent.

The desire among girls to be educated and break out of the cycle of dependence and poverty forces them to make " terrible choices", says the report, citing the example of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, a country looted by its former ruler Charles Taylor, and where little or no attention was given to women's rights. "An estimated 60 to 80 per cent of [poorer] teenage girls want an education so much they sell the only commodity, their bodies, to fund it."

The report also found that: "In areas of conflict, girls who cannot afford to go to school are more likely to join armed groups where they are forced to fight and sexually exploited."

That is what happened to Aimerance, from South Kivu in the Congo, a country with some of the richest mineral deposits in Africa but which has experienced years of violent strife. Her parents were itinerant farm labourers who had saved up to send her to school, but the money ran out and at the age of 14 she was recruited into a rebel faction.

"I was with them for two years, we suffered a lot," she said. "The men took us as their 'wives' - they treated us very badly. They didn't even consider the fact we were children. At any time they wanted, they had sex with us.

"I felt so weak and feeble and like I had lost all my intelligence. This did not happen just to me but lots and lots of girls I knew."

In areas of natural as well as man-made disasters, discrimination against females has a highly damaging effect on the community. While giving out aid in Niger, Unicef and other charities found that often what little food was left in a community was locked away by men from their wives and children, while they went off for weeks to look for work or money elsewhere. The belief among the men appeared to be that the aid agencies would provide for the family.

Unicef also discovered that giving aid directly to women offered much more of a guarantee that it would get to the rest of the family, especially the children, while the men would sometimes sell it on the black market or pass it on to other males in the clan.

Women in the areas of acute food shortage complained bitterly about the discrimination and saw little hope of things changing. Khalida Ibrahim, 19, a mother of two, said at her home in a village near Zinder. "The men control everything here, including the food. If we had been allowed to go to schools then we could have got jobs and brought food to our families. Among the children, if anyone gets to go to school it is the boys, not the girls."

The food crisis in Niger is taking place largely in an area which has experienced a growth in Islamic fundamentalism. Activists went on a rampage in the region's capital, Maradi, a few years ago in protest at an international fashion show. Around the same time a campaign began to segregate girls from boys in schools and parents were encouraged to keep older girls at home.

Even when the educational facilities are present, and the willingness is there to send children to school, there is the problem of costs. In Liberia, for instance, sending one child to school costs about £ 33. That may not sound much, but when the average annual salary is just £ 62 it is an investment few could afford. Putting it in terms of the United Kingdom, it would mean the family with an average income of £17,000 spending £ 8,500 a year in school fees for one boy or girl.

The problem of school fees is not just confined to the abjectly poverty-stricken countries. China might be the rising international industrial giant, but children in its more deprived regions are a long way from tasting the benefits of the country's commercial success. Pakistan may be a nuclear armed power, but it is also a country where 47 per cent of girls do not get to school. The situation is particularly acute in the vast tribal areas which have seen an Islamic resurgence.

Li Hongjiao, 12, from Shuangjiang County in Yunnan, lives in a farming community with little to spare. "When I grow up I'd like to get a good job but I don't think I'll be able to because we have not got the money," she said.

"My parents have to pay more than 2,000 yuan [£140] a year for my brother to go to middle school. But they won't be able to afford to pay for me to go too. They would like both of us to go, but they cannot afford it. They can only afford to pay for one."

Making schooling free, on the other hand, has had dramatic effects. In Uganda the abolition of primary school fees more than doubled attendance by girls inside three years, to 49 per cent of pupils. Numbers also rose significantly in Tanzania and Kenya when education was made free.

But getting children to school is just the first step. There are still huge shortages of rudimentary equipment andtrained teachers. In rural Kenya, for instance, many classes have to cope with more than a hundred pupils.

Save the Children's project in Somaliland has seen the proportion of girls enrolled in schools rise from 25 per cent to 40 per cent in Togdheer. But the country, which went through a bitter war of secession from neighbouring Somalia, still has a long way to go, with only 17 per cent of children attending primary school and, according to UN figures, 73 per cent of the population living in poverty.

Fotuma Abdilahi, a project officer, said: "This is just one part of Somaliland, there are many other areas where girls are not getting any schooling at all.

"The education structure collapsed during the war and it has been very difficult to get girls back into the system. There are also big problems with infrastructure. We have had flooding which had seen classrooms swept away by water and children have not been able to come to school because big lakes have formed in the paths they used."

Then there are those, at the very bottom of the pile, who seem to be slipping through all the safety nets. At the country's only orphanage, 327 children survive on meagre donations.

"We try to give the children a basic education, but we don't have enough chalks, blackboards, desks and books," said the director, Mohammed Ishamail.

"It is strange, this orphanage was started in 1954 under British rule, with British help. Now we get no help from the British Government. What I really worry about is the children leaving here and ending up in a camp."

One such camp is at the west of the capital, a place of little hope. Huts made out of branches, cardboard and torn strips of material, among piles of detritus.

About 500 families live in squalor there, among them Khadra Mohammed and her nine children. "We do not even have enough money for clean water, we do not have enough food, we have no medicine. Where am I going to get money to send them to school? We are just struggling to stay alive."