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Mind the Gender Gap

Mind the Gender Gap

Address from FORWARD Executive Director, Naana Otoo-Oyortey, on the International Day of the Girl 2014

On the International Day of the Girl I would like to reflect on the gap that exists in girls’ education in Africa, primarily, on girls who have been left behind.  Many girls can never become the Einsteins that we’ve been looking for or that we want to look for in Africa, because they’ve been left behind in education through different experiences and actions. Not due to the girls themselves but by society, by their families and by their communities. I have long been concerned about the issue of girls, gender, discrimination, rights, stereotypes and things that distance girls from education. I think it’s important now for us to reflect on those girls who have been left behind, or those who continue to be left behind or those who would never be part of that ladder of education.

The focus of the Millennium Development Goals was poverty, education, maternal health, child health, HIV and aids and gender equality. But when they looked at the targets for education, the targets were related to primary schools and I know that if education ends in primary schools we won’t get the scientists we want, we won’t get the doctors we want in Africa, we won’t get the innovators to actually make a difference. So it’s important to look at targets beyond primary education and towards the issues that affect retention in schools. There’s been a lot of talk around ‘Bring back our girls’ and this movement really hit me, in the sense that I realised that the 270 girls who were forcibly taken away from school, really made the whole world stand up. We had Michelle Obama, a lot of fantastic people, standing up. Some marching, protesting ‘Bring back our girls’ – but what I’d like to look at is ‘Bring our girls back to school’. This is because this is not the first time that girls been forcibly removed from school or have been taken away from their homes. The reality is that a lot of girls are taken away from schools by their own families. Why? Because of social stereotypes and cultural expectations of women and girls.

For a lot of girls, particularly girls in rural areas, we find that the question is usually “Why are you going to school? You’re only going to end up in somebody’s kitchen and if you’re going to end up in somebody’s kitchen there’s no point in going to school. We better just train you on domestics, how to fetch water, how to cook, how to grind, how to do the basics that will make you a good wife. You’re not going to be a scientist, you’re not going learn technology just for you to be wife.” So the gender stereotypes around what we expect of girls means that we don’t have a vision or passion for these girls to do anything other than not go to school. There are millions of girls who are out of schools – there are millions of girls who never have the chance to go to school.

I had some discussions recently with my project partners in Tanzania and we were talking about girls not in school and what I realised was that, for a lot of professional women in Africa to operate efficiently, they need to have maid servants. And those maid servants never go to school. Most of them come from rural areas to come and stay with uncles and aunties. They are told “Come and stay with your aunty in the city, she’ll take you to school”. But most of those girls will never go to school. I was having this discussion because there was a newspaper article in Tanzania about a girl that had been brought from a rural area to stay with her aunty to be taken to school and she was so brutalised that she finally ended up in hospital. When her mother came and she spoke to the girl, she said “I never knew” because these girls are hidden in rooms, nobody knows what happens to them.

In so many cities, you find domestic servants who are brutalised, who are just brought up to look after our children, so that our children can go to school, so that our children can have the best of education. But the domestic servants will never have it. So while we are reflecting on these girls that have been taken from Chibok. Let’s reflect on all the girls that have been left behind.

A poster on Child Brides found in Tanzania

I love this poster, I saw it in Tanzania and it deals with another of the main reasons that girls are not in school; because they are forced to get married. FORWARD did some very interesting research recently in Tanzania about women affected by obstetric  fistula, which is a disability that women can have when they marry too early, have babies too early and have no access to emergency obstetric care. They tend to have birth complications and can become incontinent. So they leak and they smell and they are rejected – they are stigmatised, they are thrown away. We did some innovative research, which we call PEER, with them, working with the girls and the women who had been affected to go and collect data about social life in their community. And a lot of the most interesting information that came from the research was about the issue of child marriage. The women said a lot of girls are forced into marriage; their parents want them to go into marriage. Why? Because of the bride price, because of poverty.

Now, a lot of girls can get married for maybe 5 cows, 10 cows, 20 cows depending on what the family wants and what the suitor is prepared to give. And ultimately most of those suitors are older men – much, much older and more experienced than these girls and often these girls go to their new homes as second or third wives. These girls will often not go to school. A typical quote from one of the PEER studies was from a girl who was 13 and still in primary school when her father told her she was to be married. I’ve heard so many of these stories. A 13 year old girl told how she was married when she was 11 because her father died and her uncle said “There is no way that you can continue in school, we have to marry you off’. This girl was married to a man who was 20 years older than her and had to move all the way from Northern Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam. She didn’t know anybody; she was locked up most of the time when her husband was out. When she was in labour there was nobody to help her, she had to cry and her neighbours had to knock down the door to take her to hospital. When we met the girl, she’s called Magreth, she was 17.  She said “I still want to go back to school, and I will go back to school”.

Data shows that 44% of girls in Africa are married before they’re 18 years old. In some places like Niger it’s about 70%. Some of the girls can be as young as 7 years. Why should we do this to our girls? We are talking about bringing back our girls, bringing them back home. What are they going to get at home? What kind of an environment do we have for them at home? How can these girls continue to have a future if we don’t give them the right environment?

The other issue that almost always goes together with child marriage is the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). And I see this all the time. For a lot of these girls once you go through FGM it’s time to get married. We know that in Africa alone about 3 million girls go through FGM every year. The data from UNICEF shows that about 135 million people have been through FGM. And for a lot of us we keep silent about these things because it’s right, it’s the norm, because somebody wants you to be that way. Why are we not talking? Why are we silent?

Forward Do not hide yourself PEER Study

Forced Out: A report on mandatory pregnancy testing and the expulsion of pregnant students in Tanzanian Schools from the Center for Reproductive RightsForced Out: A report on mandatory pregnancy testing and the expulsion of pregnant students in Tanzanian Schools from the Center for Reproductive Rights

There was a study I found and I was really amazed – girls are forced out of school. They’re forced out of school because they are pregnant. It happens in a lot of schools in Africa, I heard about it happening in Tanzania, in Uganda and in Kenya. I haven’t found studies in other countries, but girls are forcibly made to go through pregnancy tests and if you’re pregnant you’re kicked out of school and generally you won’t have the chance to go back to school. And if you’re pregnant, and you don’t have anywhere to go, what’s the future for you? Other data from Tanzania shows that about 50,000 girls have been kicked out of school in the last 10 years. And I’m sure that’s an underestimation. We also know that, of the girls who don’t go to school or were expelled from school, 5% of cases were due to teenage pregnancy. Why are we doing this to our girls? I was amazed when FORWARD did the PEER research, and I love doing the PEER because you hear a lot of people’s views, and we asked somebody who works in a family planning institution “Why are these girls not in school and why are teenage girls who are pregnant not allowed to go to school?” He told me “It’s not allowed because the girls would contaminate the others.” I didn’t know girls made themselves pregnant or pregnancy was a fashion and you readily go and get yourself pregnant because you saw somebody else pregnant. Who is making these girls pregnant? Some of them are teachers, some of them are uncles, some of them are fathers, some of them are boyfriends. Because for most of these girls, even access to sexual reproductive health information in schools is a challenge. Some girls told us that when they were being taught about HIV they were giggling. Their teacher simply said “I’m not teaching you anymore” and she left the class. That was the extent of their sex education.

Forward Do not hide yourself PEER StudyEthiopia Child Marriage

Child Mother from FORWARD's partner project in EthiopiaChild Mother from FORWARD’s partner project in Ethiopia

Another concern which holds girls back from education is being a Child Mother. This lady is a young Ethiopian lady I met in Gondar, somewhere in northern Ethiopia. She was one of the best students in her school. She used to tour schools to do competitions, she was a bright student. Then her father died and she was forced to get married because none of her family could support her.  She helped us to carry out this PEER research among child brides in Ethiopia. When I met her she had a baby and one of the things that really struck me about her was that she had resigned herself to her fate. I asked her “So what are you doing now?”. She said she breaks stones on the side of the road. That’s the work she’s been doing. I said “Can’t you go back to school?”, and she said “No, I can’t. How can I?”. How many of these girls do we find in so many parts of the world? How can they go back to school? Because nobody is listening to them, nobody is helping them, nobody is supporting them.

We did a very interesting thing as part of the PEER research. We did a stakeholder consultation where these girls had the opportunity to speak to the district officials at the local authority level. A lot of the officials were saying “The policy is that these girls should go back to school, they can be allowed back to school’ and one girl said “No, that’s not my experience. I wanted to go back to school but I was turned away”. I had the chance to work in the UK with a young girl from the Gambia who’d had a baby when she was 15. She had the chance to go back to school, she had the chance to do everything! To get back her vision, to get back her main drive. But how many of the girls in Africa have this chance? Very few of them, and I think we need to reflect on this.

For me, the way forward is to transform all the social norms that bring girls down, that really make people believe that a girl is nothing. What are we doing about transforming these norms? Norms which are often actually upheld by religious leaders and traditional authorities. We need to engage different players, engage them in raising awareness that these girls can also be doctors, these girls can also be scientists. These girls can be everything other than ‘just girls’. How do we do it? We need to look at investing in critical people and engage them in investing in these girls. We know that even school itself has so many barriers for girls. I haven’t even talked about the barriers in school, I’ve just spoken about the barriers outside school. But I think by acknowledging the reasons that girls that are removed from education and addressing the barriers, both in school and out of school, we can enable girls to make a difference. We can bring back those girls that have been left behind.

How do we invest in the practical needs of these girls but also invest in their strategic needs? Girls coming together, girls bonding with other girls, girls seeing that they can have a friendship, they can have an environment, a space where they can really grow. They can learn to talk about things. We need to invest in processes, in systems that will enable these girls to go back to school. I haven’t seen any crèche in any rural areas, or any crèche attached to schools. Because nobody, nobody is interested in these girls. And why are we not interested in them? Because we don’t see them as the future of Africa. Why do we do that? Because our policy makers don’t think about rural areas, don’t think about girls in slum areas. They are not the same because their children can be shipped to Europe, anywhere else, for school. These rural girls, well, they are just rural people. How do we improve a policy environment? The most important thing is to invest in evidence. Doing research, gathering information that will help us to make a difference and make decisions about girls in Africa.

I hope that I have managed to highlight the problem of girls left behind and share some of the issues around the gender gap in education in Africa for us to reflect on the need to bring our girls back to school.

You can see a video of Naana speaking on this subject at TedX Euston.

You can download copies of our PEER research in Tanzania, Sierra LeoneEthiopia and more on our website.

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