Friday, December 23, 2005

Another School Barrier for African Girls: No Toilet

The same problem is present in virtually every developing country. A good article which looks at the problem from sub-saharan girls perspective, but the same things apply to girls in India, South East Asia, other places.

BALIZENDA, Ethiopia - Fatimah Bamun dropped out of Balizenda Primary School in first grade, more than three years ago, when her father refused to buy her pencils and paper. Only after teachers convinced him that his daughter showed unusual promise did he relent. Today Fatimah, 14, tall and slender, studies math and Amharic, Ethiopia's official language, in a dirt-floored fourth-grade classroom.

Whether she will reach fifth grade is another matter. Fatimah is facing the onset of puberty, and with it the realities of menstruation in a school with no latrine, no water, no hope of privacy other than the shadow of a bush, and no girlfriends with whom to commiserate. Fatimah is the only girl of the 23 students in her class. In fact, in a school of 178 students, she is one of only three girls who has made it past third grade.

Even the women among the school's teachers say they have no choice but to use the thorny scrub, in plain sight of classrooms, as a toilet.

"It is really too difficult," said Azeb Beyene, who arrived here in September to teach fifth grade. Here and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, schoolgirls can only empathize. In a region where poverty, tradition and ignorance deprive an estimated 24 million girls even of an elementary school education, the lack of school toilets and water is one of many obstacles to girls' attendance, and until recently was considered unfit for discussion. In some rural communities in the region, menstruation itself is so taboo that girls are prohibited from cooking or even banished to the countryside during their periods.


But that impact is substantial. Researchers throughout sub-Saharan Africa have documented that lack of sanitary pads, a clean, girls-only latrine and water for washing hands drives a significant number of girls from school. The United Nations Children's Fund, for example, estimates that one in 10 school-age African girls either skips school during menstruation or drops out entirely because of lack of sanitation.

The average schoolgirl's struggle for privacy is emblematic of the uphill battle for public education in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly among girls. With slightly more than 6 in 10 eligible children enrolled in primary school, the region's enrollment rates are the lowest in the world.

Beyond that, enrollment among primary school-aged girls is 8 percent lower than among boys, according to the United Nations Children's Fund, Unicef. And of those girls who enroll, 9 percent more drop out before the end of sixth grade than boys.

African girls in poor, rural areas like Balizenda are even more likely to lose out. The World Bank estimated in 1999 that only one in four of them was enrolled in primary school.

The issue, advocates for children say, is not merely fairness. The World Bank contends that if women in sub-Saharan Africa had equal access to education, land, credit and other assets like fertilizer, the region's gross national product could increase by almost one additional percentage point annually. Mark Blackden, one of the bank's lead analysts, said Africa's progress was inextricably linked to the fate of girls.

"There is a connection between growth in Africa and gender equality," he said. "It is of great importance but still ignored by so many."

The pressure on girls to drop out peaks with the advent of puberty and the problems that accompany maturity, like sexual harassment by male teachers, ever growing responsibilities at home and parental pressure to marry. Female teachers who could act as role models are also in short supply in sub-Saharan Africa: they make up a quarter or less of the primary school teachers in 12 nations, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Florence Kanyike, the Uganda coordinator for the Forum of Women Educationalists, a Nairobi-based organization that lobbies for education for girls, said the harsh inconvenience of menstruation in schools without sanitation was just one more reason for girls to stay home.


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