Commentary: Keeping girls in school
By Patricia Lone
Choose a desk in a primary school in the developing world
and the chances are that it will be occupied by a boy. Many
forces combine to spell an early end to education for girls.
Chief among them is poverty. The cost of voluntary'
contributions, uniforms, books, and bus fares can make even
free education expensive - especially if there are many
children. When a poor family considers how much a daughter
can help in cleaning, cooking, collecting wood and water,
and looking after younger children, and how little
opportunity there will be for her to get a paying job even
if she is educated, then the returns rarely seem to warrant
So it is usually the daughters who are withdrawn from
Even when girls are enrolled, the burden of domestic
chores stands in the way of educational progress. A study in
Mozambique's primary schools found that the single most
important factor in poor performance was the time and strain
imposed by the child's workload.
Close behind poverty follows tradition. And perhaps the
strongest tradition of all is the idea that sons should be
educated because they will be the breadwinners of their own
future families, and the supporters of their aging parents.
A girl's work, though it may be longer and harder, is
considered less likely to bring in monetary income. And in
cultures where marriage means that a daughter becomes part
of her husband's family, the incentive to educate girls is
Yet when asked, many poor families will say that they
want their daughters to be educated. Many girls stay home,
not because parents are poor or culturally intransigent, but
because they do not believe that the kind of education on
offer is appropriate for their daughters or because they
feel the risks are too great.
Those risks are real. Girls are sexually harassed,
sometimes raped, by their fellow students, or their teachers,
or sometimes by strangers as they walk to school. Girls get
pregnant. And these sexual pressures and vulnerability are
central to low enrolment and retention rates for girls in
the classrooms of many countries. If classes are overcrowded,
if children are poorly supervised, if male students are
unruly and violent, then many girls feel threatened and many
parents fear for their safety. If no single-sex schools or
classes are available, if there are no women teachers, and
if the school is too far from the home or community, then
female attendance tends to fall away. A study in Egypt, for
example, showed that girls' enrolment was at a low 30% when
schools were three or more kilometres from the children's
homes, but over 70% when the school was located within one
Here, too, poverty plays its part. If their clothes are
torn or inadequate, girls from poor families, constrained by
the demands of modesty and propriety, will stay at home. If
they do not have adequate sanitary protection, or if their
school does not have separate toilets, then the beginning of
menstruation can mean the end of a girl's education.
Few governments and development agencies have adequately
addressed the many needs, risks and fears of girls and their
families as they make their decisions on whether or not a
daughter should attend school.
Just as there is no single cause of the low level of
girls' enrolment and retention in school, so there is no
Many different approaches are being tried, most of them
small in scale and as yet unevaluated. The common strands in
the experiments to date appear to be the building of schools
or classrooms closer to communities (at least for the early
years of primary education); the involvement of local
communities and parents in the running of schools; the
training of more female teachers; the offer of cash
incentives to families who keep daughters in school up to
specified grades; the expansion of non-formal education to
try to give more girls basic literacy, numeracy, and life
skills; information campaigns about the importance of girls'
education; flexible schedules (to allow girls to meet
domestic responsibilities); and more preschool education
both as a means of reducing later drop-outs and as a way of
making it possible for girls to attend school while their
young siblings are cared for.
* In Bangladesh, the 35,000 community schools started by
the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) have so
far enrolled 982,000 students - 70% of them girls. Most of
the BRAC teachers are women who live in the community and
have 9 or 10 years of schooling. A village management
committee runs the school, and there is a monthly meeting
between parents and teachers at which the attendance of
mothers is considered essential.
* In Mali, 75 village schools have been established with
compulsory parity - each class having 15 boys and 15 girls.
The schools are run by a committee selected by the community.
Twice as many girls are enrolled as in the formal school
* In rural south Egypt, where about half a million girls
of primary school age are not in school, local community
schools are being built to cut down the distance girls are
expected to travel. In the 110 schools set up so far,
approximately 3,000 children are enrolled - 70% to 80% of
* In Pakistan, 300 new village schools have enrolled
14,000 girls in one of the most isolated and traditional
areas of the country where the female literacy rate is no
more than 4%. The success of the Baluchistan project, funded
by several international organizations, is partly based on
the concept of the mobile female teacher training unit,
which allows women with 8 to 10 years of education to train
as teachers without leaving their own villages. So far, more
than 400 such teachers have been accredited by the
Government. The schools themselves are run by village
education committees elected by a minimum of 75% of all
parents of school-age children.
* A similar project in Punjab (Pakistan) has opened 114
schools over the last five years and succeeded in enrolling
approximately 3,000 girls. All teachers and supervisors are
women, and the schools maintain a flexible calendar to allow
for the seasonal farm work which girls are expected to do.
* In Senegal, the Tostan organization has launched a
programme to bring non-formal education to 1,400 girls in 20
villages. Stressing flexible timetables, Tostan is also
promoting energy-efficient stoves to save the many hours a
day that girls have to spend collecting firewood.
* In Burkina Faso, 30 satellite schools have been set up
to reach equal numbers of boys and girls, aged seven to nine,
who have dropped out of the school system. After three years
in the satellite school, taught in a local language by
locally recruited teachers, pupils can transfer back to the
formal primary school system.
* In Nepal, girls who have dropped out of school are
being offered non-formal classes for two hours a day, six
days a week, nine months of the year, after which they are
eligible to rejoin the formal school system. Approximately
70,000 girls have enrolled so far. Meanwhile, the Government
of Nepal is offering small subsidies to poor parents who
keep their daughters in school.
Why do more girls than boys drop out
of school? And what can be done to keep them there? A survey
by Patricia Lone (UNICEF), based on information and research
from Ann Cotton (Cambridge Female Education Trust, UK),
Randy Hatfield (Academy for Educational Development, US),
Peter Laugharn (Save the Children Federation), Molly
Melching (Tostan literacy project, Senegal), and Saudamini
Siegrist, Rosa Maria Torres and Malak Zalouk (UNICEF).