Empowered Mothers Make Educated Daughters in Guinea

October 12, 2013

This story is part of the line-up to commemorate International Day of the Girl Child. This post originally appeared on the UNICEF West and Central Africa blog site on 11 October 2013.

MANDIANA DISTRICT, Guinea, 11 October 2013 – At the end of her first 12 hour shift in the mining camp, as she slept in the open, exposed to the young miners who came in and out of her shared, doorless hut, Saran realized she had made a terrible mistake. Just 13 years old, Saran was lured by the rumors of wealth to be found in the gold mines of neighboring Siguiri. She dropped out of school and, together with her friend Mariam, hitchhiked then walked the 55 kilometers to a gold mine.

© UNICEF/Guinea/2013/Shimizu A group of mothers discussing with UNICEF on how best to bring their girls to school.

Her new job, for which she earned less than one dollar and fifty cents per day, was to sift through dirt for small pieces of gold. Her work began at 7am and ended after dinner. There were no weekends for Saran. Without permission from her host family, who pressured her every day to find gold, she could not return home.

“We went to the mine because there was no money,” she told UNICEF, “I would see other girls come back with new clothes and extra money for their parents.”

Saran had become yet another girl in Guinea deprived of an education and exposed to the many dangers of child labor. In Guinea, where only 34 per cent of girls complete their primary education in rural communities, Saran’s story is not uncommon.

Guinea is one of the West African countries still experiencing a significant gap between the education of girls and boys. The completion rate of girls for primary education is 51 per cent and the gender parity index for this indicator is at 0.76. Several studies, notably a study on gender disparity in the education sector supported by UNICEF Guinea, demonstrated that the poverty of parents, distance between schools and homes, a shortage of teachers, physical and sexual violence, as well as early marriages and pregnancies are among the root causes for the lack of girls in school.

Girls’ education increases the protection of children from all manners of abuse. It reduces early marriage, decreases infant and child mortality. Armed with an education, girls contribute to a fairer and more inclusive community.

That is why innovation in girls’ education is a priority for UNICEF Guinea. Along with building child-friendly schools, reinforcing the capacity of teachers and administrators, and participating in political advocacy, UNICEF, together with partners in Government and civil society, supports the creation of local Associations of Mothers of Girl Students. Known locally as Comité des Mères des Elèves Filles or COMEFs, these associations work to improve access for girls to education and to ensure that girls stay in school until the completion of their primary education. Our experience in education has taught us that mothers, often with no education themselves, are the most passionate and effective advocates for the education of their daughters. Building on this fundamental truth, UNICEF saw an opportunity to innovate.

Working with mothers to keep girls in school
Mothers more so than fathers understand better the key barriers to access, retention, and success of girls at school. They know the burden of domestic work, risks of early pregnancy and early marriage. And, oftentimes, they are the ones supporting most of the costs of schooling for children.

The COMEF innovation is successful due to its simple methodology. First, Ministry of Education staff sensitize teachers, administrators, and mothers of girl students on the value of girls education and the ability of an association to play a significant role as a strong partner. Next, instructions are given on how to create an association within the school. Elected mothers are trained on community mobilization skills, negotiation skills and simple accounting to manage the Committee. Most COMEFs link up with other women’s income generating activities (IGA) which ensure their financial sustainability. COMEF members convince hesitant parents of unschooled girls that their girls will not be exposed to risks such as sexual violence in schools, and they also help poor families to purchase essential learning materials to send their girls to school. The associations are also the first responders. They visit schools every day to ensure that the girls attend school and can act quickly when a problem is identified. Given that most women are illiterate, COMEFs are often supported by a designated school teacher, reinforcing school-mothers communication channel. UNICEF and partners remain in close contact with the associations after their creation to ensure their success.

The mothers who become COMEF members say they are empowered themselves. Before COMEFs existed, mothers were poorly represented in the Parents’ Association in schools. Often there were only one or two mothers in a committee of seven, reducing the impact of mothers. Through COMEFs, which are 100 per cent composed of mothers, their voices are strong and authoritative in interactions with Parents’ Associations, school administrators, community leaders, as well as in their households with their husbands. Members of COMEF gain confidence and often become role models for other mothers and their daughters. COMEFs have proved to be more effective in dealing with problems that are low priorities on the agendas of Parents’ Associations dominated by men.

COMEFs have demonstrated their success through an increase in the number of girls enrolling and staying in school and a reduction in drop-out rates. By mobilizing mothers and giving them the simple tools to improve the lives of their daughters as well as other girls, they become catalyzers to increase community engagement and participation to promote girls’ education.

The creation of COMEFs is not the only innovation on girls’ education supported by UNICEF Guinea. As part of our Back to School distribution campaign, UNICEF has provided woman community organizers motorcycles to help them reach children in remote villages to encourage their enrollment. Additionally, UNICEF has created special report cards using a color system so that illiterate parents can still track their child’s progress.

The importance of education
In Saran’s village, Madame Koulibary, the president of the COMEF and two women members learned of her fate during a home visit following her extended absence from class. After they explained the importance of Saran’s education to her parents, they were able to convince them to take her back and permit her to return to school. They organized funds for Saran’s return home. Following the COMEF’s intervention, Saran’s brother traveled over six hours to the mines and secured the release of his sister.

Thanks to the COMEF, Saran is now back in school. On October 3, she entered the 6th grade. When she finishes school, Saran says she wants to be an advocate for other girls to attend school. Madame Koulibary’s message to the girls of Guinea is simple, ”whatever you do in the future, you will do it better with literacy.”

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