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Grade 6 students cram into desks at Pimbiniet Primary School in Kenya’s Narok South district. (Josh O’Kane/The Globe and Mail)
Grade 6 students cram into desks at Pimbiniet Primary School in Kenya’s Narok South district. (Josh O’Kane/The Globe and Mail)


Africa’s next challenge: Getting fully schooled Add to ...

Across sub-Saharan Africa, the primary-aged dropout rate is 44 per cent – the highest of any region across the world, UNESCO says. “If kids don’t learn the basics, parents start wondering what the reason is they’re sending their kids to school,” Ms. Rose says.

The staff at Ngunyumu Primary School in Korogocho fight the odds by serving lunch every day to students – some of whom take extra home for their families – and developing a robust series of after-school activities that include everything from martial arts to violin lessons.

By putting emphasis on passion and excelling, says Ngunyumu gym teacher Gilbert Moywaywa, students who might not succeed at formal education gain structure and discipline – particularly boys, whose numbers dwindle in upper grades as they pick garbage or find other ways to earn money for their families.

Serving food and providing non-traditional learning opportunities have proved a big boost for the school, Mr. Moywaywa says. “School enrolment is increasing because dropouts are coming back.”

Marginalization of girls

Teachers are dealing with dropouts at the Raila Educational Centre in Kibera, too.

“Girls start disappearing in upper primary,” says Mr. Muga, the deputy head teacher.

By the time students reach Grade 8 – the end of primary school in Kenya, and the point at which the country’s students take a national exam required to enter secondary school – about one-third of the girls who started school there have usually dropped out. “There is a serious disparity,” he says.

Raila’s students, many of whom are orphans, already face enormous barriers because of their surroundings in Kibera. But the cycle of poverty is even more difficult for girls to escape there, and in much of sub-Saharan Africa, as social expectations continue to weigh down their chances to get adequate educations.

If universal primary education is to be achieved, it’s going to require measures to make access more equitable for girls, to help them escape poverty and become functioning members of democratic societies.

Ms. Rose, of the Global Monitoring Report, says that getting more girls into school has been “one of the successes of the past decade” worldwide but that much work is left to be done, particularly on this continent, where girls have continued to account for 55 per cent of out-of-school students since 2000.

At Raila, many girls who quit before completing Grade 8 do so because they’ve become pregnant. Even if it’s unlikely they’ll go on to further education, the school encourages them to complete their national exam. “Anything you can do to encourage learning during such a struggle,” Mr. Muga says.

“We’re talking about girls who are 13, who function as women in society in those cultures,” says Nora Fyles, head of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative Secretariat. The risk of rape and violence holds some families from sending girls to school – or, worse but just as likely, they stop attending school after it’s happened.

“There’s an expectation and importance for them to play a sexual or reproductive role in society. ... It limits their attendance, performance and completion,” Ms. Fyles says.

Girls may also be held back from school because of opportunity costs at home – without keeping girls back, families in some communities are unable to complete household work. In these cases, Ms. Fyles says, girls can be kept at home even when there are no true upfront barriers.

Other families, particularly in conservative communities, may hold girls back from schools because they’re uncomfortable with the environments. Girls from rural pastoral communities have the most difficult time completing their education. “Girls in that context are still living a very traditional life, so the expectation by families for them to stay in school are still very slim,” Ms. Fyles says.

The urban-rural divide exposes the fact that gender tends to be related to other categories of exclusion from opportunity, including education. Worldwide, for instance, 12 per cent of urban-dwelling boys are out-of school, versus 24 per cent of girls in rural communities, according to data from 57 countries from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

“Gender inequality tends to be embedded in other kinds of disadvantages,” says the World Bank’s Mr. Prouty. Well-to-do urban girls are more likely to complete education on par with boys, but girls who are disabled, poor or members of minority groups face the biggest struggles of all children.

In these cases, a girl is “fortunate if she’s able to attend a full year in her lifetime,” Ms. Fyles says.

Girls who don’t attend or drop out are already inherently disadvantaged, too. “Boys can achieve a lower level of education [and still enter] the labour market more than girls,” she says.

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