Focusing on girls in the World’s most impoverished country
– by Mikaela Ramdial
Here at Niger Vocational School, girls are our focus. In a country that is rated last on the United Nation’s index of developed countries and is overflowing with poverty, one might ask why we choose to invest into primarily the young girls in the community. Why don’t we work more in healthcare or agricultural development? The choice to work with girls is greatly inspired by the “Girl Effect” concept. The “Girl Effect” (as relating to development) is an inspiring, World movement after a lot of research and insight from major international Aid and Development players and after being finacially backed and promoted by Nike. It has since been joined by the United Nations Women and by other large sponsors who believe that pouring into women is a key to ending the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
This theory states that there are five major assets that contribute to ending poverty from the viewpoint of women. They are Education, Health, Economic Security, Safety, and Voice and Rights. According to the foundation’s website “when a girl is better educated, has access to sexual and reproductive healthcare information and services, has access and control of economic assets, is safe from violence and exploitation, and has the capabilities and confidence to make positive choices, she can break the cycle of poverty”. When stated frankly like that, it sounds like a rather presumptuous claim to suggest that, simply, these five factors could end a crisis as widespread and as overwhelming as world poverty. Indeed, critics say that the girl effect relies too heavily on just women as well as it overburdens women who are already responsible for childcare and all types labor. However, giving young girls solid skills to earn a living helps them, their families and their children for the next generation. When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man which means that helping women directly and positively impacts the family. Also, it is worth providing the opportunity, resources and safe place to become educated if they wanted to be. If girls are given a chance to stay in school, get access to health services, delay marriage and childbirth, it’s not only them who benefit – so do their children, families, communities, and countries.
As we spend time beneath grass huts drinking Tuareg tea and listening to the daily lives of the women in our community, we hear the worries they experience from living in the shadow of an unstable future. Health is particularly fragile and any symptom could mean malaria in their uneducated eyes. Indeed malaria is a major killer here in Niger, responsible for 50% of the deaths in children under the age of 5. In Niger, only 15.9% of women have a comprehensive knowledge of HIV and less that 1% of young people take measures to prevent this disease. Thankfully there are many social and economic barriers that help to keep the HIV rate quiet low in Niger, but their lack of knowledge is concerning.
Also, just 29% have a skilled attendant present while giving birth and 50% give birth before the age of 18. These women deal with a lot of stress and danger to their lives just because of their lack of access to the scientific and health knowledge about their own bodies. Only 8% of Nigerien girls attend secondary school which highlights how dependant they are on the educated individuals around them. This is where the education and health assets become so integral to the improvement to women’s lives.
“When you invest in a girl in a wholistic sense, also focusing on health and hygiene, nutrition, sexual health , expressing themselves through their own ideas and thoughts, discussing religion, prayer and a sense of purpose, you help build a young woman who can stand the storm around her and make smart, educated decisions for her own life.”
What’s more, Nigerien women deal with very heavy loads in regards to marital and familial relationships. The United Nations statistics indicate that 75% of women are married before the age of eighteen. Yes you read that right, and that makes Niger the worst offender in the World statistics on child marriage. Of that 75%, 36% are married before they even reach their fifteenth birthday. This is a crazy statistic that paints the picture of a girl’s life here. They are thrown into a marriage by their families before they even know who they are or what they think about the world around them. Indeed, divorce is rampant and many of these divorced women move back to their families with young children to care for. There are even girls at our school who have young children but are not married. Also, tragically,70% of women justify wife-beating. Being so young and without education, women are left without many choices or self-worth.
At our small vocational school in the capital city, we have 40 girls this year who are taught sewing, French, Math and Health and Hygiene and Character development. We worked with an additional 60 in the previous cycle of girls and some of them are back with us again to take advanced level classes. There is a medical clinic set up once a week in our little four-room house where they can bring in their young children and where they can ask their questions. We also work hard to create an environment where they can ask their questions without feeling shame or foolish. We are surprised at how much they do not know in relation to their responsibilities. We pray that the three years of education they have at our school would help them make more informed choices for their children and that it would increase their value in their own communities and families.
An educated girl is more likely to earn greater income, raise a smaller family, have healthier children, participate in political processes, and send her own children to school. An educated girl also is less likely to become infected with HIV. Despite their often messy lives, the girls we work with are caring, smart, funny, giggly and hard-working. I believe that as their lives are enriched, that their influence reaches more people than we could ever help and that their knowledge betters the life of the next generation. It is not the effect on the girl that is so important but the girl’s effect on poverty as a whole that gives such worth to their education.
For a few more reasons….read on!
There are countless reasons rescuing girls is the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing to do. Consider the virtuous circle: An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10% to 20%. An extra year of secondary school adds 15% to 25%. Girls who stay in school for seven or more years typically marry four years later and have two fewer children than girls who drop out. Fewer dependents per worker allows for greater economic growth. And the World Food Programme has found that when girls and women earn income, they reinvest 90% of it in their families. They buy books, medicine, bed nets. For men, that figure is more like 30% to 40%. “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world,” Larry Summers wrote when he was chief economist at the World Bank. Of such cycles are real revolutions born.