It’s no secret that girls’ enrolment in, and completion of primary, secondary and tertiary education lags behind that of boys throughout Uganda. Nationally, approximately 13 per cent of primary school-aged girls and 30 per cent of secondary school-aged girls are reported to be out of school. Even more concerning are the completion rates: Nationally, only 55.28 per cent of girls enrolled in primary education graduate from Primary Seven, and less than 20 per cent of all girls aged 15-19 have finished primary education. Girls are least likely to receive an education in West Nile, which has the country’s highest gender gap in school enrolment.
This is, undoubtedly, a cause for great concern. Aside from the fact that education is widely considered to be a basic human right, educating girls is in everyone’s interest.
As the National Strategy for Girls’ Education (2015-2019) in Uganda explains, improving girls’ education leads to “higher family incomes, greater economic productivity, better nutrition, delayed marriage, improved maternal outcomes and infant survival rates, together with overall improvements in education outcomes for children. Investing in girls’ education ...yields high returns and directly contributes to economic development.”
Despite continued efforts by the government and many not-for-profit organisations, several challenges persist. There are still barriers to entry, with girls being kept out of class due to domestic work or lack of basic necessities required for participation.
There are also issues with retention — early marriage and pregnancy are key contributors — and many schools are still not gender-responsive so their instructional materials do not promote gender equality. Further, inadequate infrastructure, negative stereotypes and language, and insufficient mentorship and role models may discourage girls from staying in school.
But there is reason to hope. Many schools have seen improvements in girls’ enrolment, attendance and completion, and there are dozens of stories of girls who themselves are fighting to graduate from Primary or Secondary school, despite challenges brought on by poverty, teenage pregnancy and unfavourable home or school environments.
I recently had the opportunity to meet two such girls in Koboko District, both of whom became pregnant this year but managed to continue attending school daily. They sat their Primary Leaving Examinations last month. One of their mothers-in-law said she is determined that her daughter-in-law continue her studies “because that is the only way the family will be better off.”
Gender equality is everyone’s responsibility. We all have a role to play in challenging negative attitudes, fostering safe and welcoming spaces for both girls and boys, and refusing to accept that gender determines what someone can or should do.
The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) hosts conferences and events on girls’ education in partnership with district officials in Arua, Koboko and Yumbe to encourage dialogue at the district, sub-county and school levels. Organisers share information, train educators to be gender-responsive when developing classroom materials and lesson plans, and help communities to initiate school improvements (such as adequate sanitation facilities or changing rooms) that address the needs of the girl-child.
As a result of the events, the three district governments have committed to strategic partnerships and capacity building to effectively implement practical solutions to issues related to girls’ education, and awareness raising and mentoring support for behavioral change. AKF is also working with four civil society organisations and 150 school management committees or parent-teacher associations to help them become more gender-responsive in their planning, implementation and monitoring and evaluation.
Parents and educators must also be part of this process. Parents have a responsibility to invest in their girl-children through education, instead of allowing them to drop out or marry at a young age.
They must encourage girls to study at home and provide social and material support to help girls perform well, leading to a better quality of life for themselves and their children, and the means to better care for ageing parents.
Educators can support girls by removing negative language and stereotypes from classrooms and using materials that show girls in non-traditional roles. They can follow up with children who stop coming to school and ask parents to ensure daily attendance. Rather than stigmatising or punishing girls who become pregnant, teachers should welcome them back to school.
Finally, check that schools have adequate latrines, changing rooms and bathing shelters and supply sanitary pads to girls so they can attend school when menstruating.
Giving girls the support they need to fulfil their potential allows them to help their families and contribute to Uganda’s development. As one teacher told me, “When you educate a girl, you educate the nation.”
Ms Topan is a communications fellow, West Nile Area office. Aga Khan Foundation (Uganda) firstname.lastname@example.org