Changing attitudes about female education

The drilling team in South Sudan was starting to make progress, and once we were sure they had reached a place where they could be left to continue, we headed back to Uganda to check on some of our projects there.

First stop was Alela Modern Primary School, near Lira, where we had perviously constructed one of our sanitation systems.

Joseph Kony and the LRA had terrorized this school and community back in 2006; and when we first visited there in 2009, the villages were still recovering from the trauma of having had children abducted.

But these days, I see a much different picture. According to the school records, enrollment has steadily increased since we began working with the school two years ago, from 823 pupils in 2010 to the current enrollment of 1018. The teachers even proudly showed off the student national performance scores, which had also improved each year.

The administration very vocally credits these increases partially to the availability of nearby water and good sanitation facilities, saying it makes it easier for the pupils to come to school and stay there.

Although the benefits of clean water are obvious, access to decent sanitation has also had an enormous impact. A visit to most any school pit latrine is an eye-opening experience. The children do not like to use them. They smell terrible and are often littered with feces, as the small children usually relieve themselves on the floor, for fear of falling into those big dark pits. Although we are still collecting data to prove this theory, it is my strong belief that school pit latrines make young children sick.

Aside from being clean and free of bad odors, our sanitation system also has the added benefit of providing water and much needed privacy for adolescent girls, which is key to keeping the girls in school once they reach puberty.

Christopher Elem, the head teacher of Alela Modern Primary School, is very serious about keeping the girls in his school.  In fact, the school’s administration was recently prepared to launch a court case against the parents of 16 year-old Charity Atem whey they tried to make her drop out of school.

Charity Atem, Alela Modern Primary School, Uganda.

Elem admits that changing attitudes about female education is a real challenge for the school, as the overall culture is not supportive of its girls. Families keep them at home to perform domestic duties as soon as they are old enough. And many parents marry their daughters off as soon as they reach puberty. Although both of these practices are technically illegal, the laws are rarely enforced.

In Charity’s case, although her test scores were excellent, her parents wanted to get her married, in order to focus their meager financial resources on educating her brother.

The bright 16 year-old seemed extremely frustrated by the whole situation saying that her community thinks it is wasteful to spend money on girls.

Her friend Nancy Amule is repeating 7th grade after missing too many days of school last year and falling behind.

Nancy Amule, Alela Modern Primary School, Uganda

Nancy also gets no support from her community. She says the villagers not only tease her because she’s still attending school, when she’s old enough to be married, but her father’s friends also pressure him to stop wasting money on her education, saying she is of no benefit to the family.

In this culture, girls tend to move in with their husband’s families after marrying. So when faced with the issue of limited resources, parents often focus more on educating and nurturing the boys, which they feel will eventually be an asset to the family. Meanwhile, girls are primed for marriage at an early age, and encouraged to master domestic duties over learning math or English (Note: English is the national language of both Uganda and South Sudan and most jobs require that you speak it. But a multitude of tribal vernacular is spoken in villages across the region.)

Right now Nancy does most of the work around her house, especially the cooking. She spends three hours after school fetching water, grinding millet and preparing dinner. An injury left her mother with a weak leg, so although she spends her days working in the garden and fetching the firewood for cooking, by evening she is exhausted and Nancy takes over.

Both girls feel it is extremely unfair that their brothers get preferential treatment. When I mentioned the concept of gender inequality they both got very animated, saying that society tells girls they are useless and as soon as they have breasts and are only fit for marrying. Meanwhile, the boys get to go to school and often do nothing with the education they get.

Class at Alela Modern begins at 6:30AM and ends at 5PM. This means that both Nancy and Charity leave their homes in the dark to trek across fields and down dirt roads to get to school on time. But neither girl seems to mind. They are happy to be in class, even though the pupils and teachers must use flashlights to illuminate their lessons until the sun comes up.

For Charity things are going well. Because of the school intervention, her parents allowed her to return to class and she recently passed the national exams. She’s headed to high school next term.

But Nancy is not so lucky. Despite all of her efforts, she just learned that her father enrolled her in technical school. Although she had hoped to one day become a nurse, she will soon be leaving her studies behind. She says she will most likely learn to sew or paint furniture at her new school.

Clearly there is a huge need for parents to support learning. Providing water and sanitation to these institutions often helps give that extra bit credibility to motivate the parents to get involved.

So there is a ripple effect. In the beginning, having these facilities encourages more students to enroll in the school. This provides additional financial support to the institution. This extra funding then becomes an incentive for the teachers. And a motivated administration is key to encouraging the parents and keeping children, especially girls, in school. In the end, they come to school, they stay there and perform better.

“Women must be full partners in development, so they can lift themselves and their communities out of poverty.”  United Nation Secretary General -Ban Ki-Moon

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Author: Stacey Travis

Founder and Executive Director of Drop in the Bucket a water charity building water wells and sanitation systems at schools in Africa.

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