The Small Project helps both girls and boys to attend school. However, increasingly we are focussing more on girls. Why? Read on.
Chalk it up to her mother’s intuition. Pauline had met with all our students during the April school break, just to see how they all were doing and to give them a little pep talk. However, after her conversation with Rebecca, she knew something was bothering her. Something serious.
A few days later, after Rebecca had returned to her boarding school, Pauline still felt very uneasy. She just had to find out what was wrong. She called the school and, after some fumbling around, was told that Rebecca had disappeared the day before. A trusted girl in Form 4, Rebecca had been allowed to go to town for some personal items and had never returned. And no one at the school knew where she had gone.
Pauline was now very worried. The police were contacted and calls were made to friends and family without success. But the word spread and the next day a distant uncle called to say that Rebecca had arrived at his place in a terrible state. He agreed to escort the girl home, and then the story came tumbling out.
Rebecca was pregnant. She had hidden her condition from family, friends, and teachers for eight months. But inside she was a mess: horribly distressed and terribly alone. The pressure grew too great and in desperation she sought a “backstreet” abortion. Fortunately, the man she contacted turned her down, saying her pregnancy was too advanced. So, too ashamed to return to the school or her family, and extremely distraught, she fled to her uncle’s home in western Kenya.
An orphan from an early age, Rebecca was raised by her much older grandparents on their small shamba (farm) near Mt. Kenya. A few years earlier Rebecca had met Isabel, a Canadian secondary student on a school trip to the country. Isabell really liked Rebecca and felt she had great potential. Arrangements were made for Isabel and her family to sponsor Rebecca at a boarding school with the hope that with a really good education she could break free from the cycle of poverty into which she had been born.
But what was to happen to Rebecca now? Would she want to go back to school? Would the school even let her return? Who would look after the baby if she did? And where would the money come from? And what would Isabel think of her?
Rebecca’s story is by no means unique for many African girls and women, especially from poorer rural communities. Across the continent women face enormous challenges, and gender equality, despite being one of the United Nations 2015 Millennium Development Goals, remains elusive. But apart from the basic human rights issue, there are many compelling economic reasons to embrace and to encourage the empowerment of women.
In rural Africa especially, girls generally lag behind boys in education. Worldwide one in four women is functionally illiterate and a large proportion of that number is African. In the majority of African countries, only 50% of girls finish primary school. At any given time, there are not as many girls as boys in school and they don’t tend to go as far before quitting.
When a family living in subsistence or semi-subsistence circumstances faces hardship, for instance during a drought, it’s the daughters who get pulled out of school first to save money and to help with domestic work. In many poorer communities, feminine hygiene products are not available and consequently, girls can miss up to a week of school every month. In school systems focused on the all-important final exam, this can be a huge challenge and many girls get discouraged and drop out. And, of course, there are longstanding cultural barriers to the empowerment of women through education.
And yet it has been well documented that for every year a girl stays in school her income, on average, increases between 10 and 20%. Furthermore, there is a strong correlation between a girl’s education and the degree of food security, nutrition and overall health of her own family. In short, if you educate the girl, you break the cycle of poverty.
Health care is another part of the problem. Every two minutes somewhere in the world a woman dies in childbirth, and 99% of these are in the developing world. We live in an age where we can send people to the moon and yet in some African countries girls are still more likely to die in childbirth than finish their schooling. If a mother dies giving birth, the economic (let alone emotional) consequences for the rest of her children are usually devastating. The provision of adequate pre-natal and delivery conditions means that more mothers will live to care for their own children.
In some areas of Africa girls get married at an early age. Apart from usually spelling the end of her schooling, an early marriage often results in the woman having too many children and too close together, endangering her own health and badly stretching the family’s meagre resources. Providing women with the knowledge and the means to control their own reproductive health can improve the quality of life for the mother and her immediate family. But importantly it also has far broader and long term ramifications for society since the mother is able to contribute more to the family’s income, thus ensuring her own daughters are better educated. Put simply, reproductive health care for women makes good economic policy.
Apart from doing a disproportionally larger share of the household work, women in Africa are also responsible for about 80% of the continent’s agricultural output. And yet in sub-Saharan Africa only something like 15% of landholders are women. Consequently, many women lack the collateral necessary to secure loans to improve their output or start a small business. And yet experience across the continent has shown that when women can access credit directly, and generally get support for entrepreneurship, they do incredibly well, often outstripping men.
And the ripple effects are even greater since, generally speaking, women invest far more of their income into the well-being of their families than men do. It becomes a virtuous circle.
Happily, many African governments and international lending agencies are recognizing the value that accrues from enabling small loans to women. It’s being seen as a smart investment, both for the lending bank and the nation. Just as the failure to educate women is a tragic waste of human capital, the failure to financially support women – through land ownership and access to credit - makes for poor economic planning.
Many countries in Africa are on an economic tear and the continent as a whole is predicted to be booming in the next ten to 15 years boosting, according to the Harvard Business Review, seven of the top ten fastest growing economies. Unfortunately, this massive explosion in economic power is not currently having the same impact on women as men, nor is it likely to in the immediate future. Furthermore, it can be argued that the failure to invest in women’s education, health care, and entrepreneurship, will needlessly limit this economic expansion. It just doesn’t make sense.
And so the empowerment of women must, therefore, involve the education of men.
And so, what about Rebecca? Was she, despite the encouragement and financial resources directed her way, destined to live the rest of her life in the same state of poverty into she was born? Were her children destined to live the same life? Was this just another small failure in the empowerment of women?
A few weeks after returning home, Rebecca gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Despite some initial resistance, Rebecca’s school, after due consideration and a little intervention, agreed to let her return to finish the year and sit her Form 4 final exams. Isabel and her family quickly stepped up to the plate and provided the financial support to hire a nanny and buy the supplies necessary to support the child while Rebecca was away at school. With encouragement from Pauline, her grandmother and Isabel, Rebecca worked doggedly to do her best. She’s a bright young woman who understands very well what an incredible opportunity she had and almost lost. She was determined not to let it slip away again.
Rebecca graduated from university and is now a qualified nurse.
And all it took was a little support.