In Niger, barely 64 % of the girls are attending school. In 2012, the literacy rate for women was only 18.2 % compared to 40.2 % for men. Girls often leave school before graduation. The causes are multiple and include early marriage, early pregnancy, geographical remoteness and poor consideration of the school system. The Sarraounia project led by Enabel, the Belgian development agency, is trying to reverse this trend by boosting girls' self-confidence.
The statistics are clear: education is a way to protect girls. It reduces the number of early marriages and infant mortality. Through education as a tool, girls contribute to a more equitable and inclusive community. Educated girls grow up to become women who invest 90 % of what they earn in their families; family incomes can increase by 25 % for each year of schooling and educated mothers are more than twice as likely to send their children to school.
However, the education of young Nigerian girls is not optimal, especially in rural areas. As Balkissa Harouna Brah, the woman in charge of the Sarraounia project, explains:
There are many factors that contribute to girls dropping out of school. The school environment is characterised by a lack of infrastructure and facilities. In most rural colleges, students sit on the ground and do not have access to toilets. In addition, social standards often favour the girl's marriage over her academic performance. Finally, there is one rarely mentioned factor related to the deterioration of the quality of the education system. Many girls are motivated, they want to succeed in school, but the majority of them are at risk of being excluded from the system because of their poor school results. When a girl is excluded, the only alternative she has left is marriage.
Consequently, the development by the Nigerian government of a strategy to boost girls' schooling is a real step forward: there is at least official recognition of the need to fight gender stereotypes, rooted in the very patriarchal Nigerian society, by seeking new solutions. In such a context, it was most legitimate for us to test a new methodological approach to reduce school inequalities between girls and boys in our target rural communities.
That is why the Sarraounia project led by Enabel, in collaboration with the Nigerian government, is designed to help young girls stay in school in the rural communes of the Dosso region, paying attention to the daily obstacles they face.
What is its objective? To tackle the root of the problem as well as the practice of early marriage itself by approaching the issue of girls' schooling from different perspectives: to involve parents and the community, to discuss perceptions of gender roles, empowerment and self-esteem.
“The Sarraounia Project is a pilot project”, says Balkissa. “From the beginning, we wanted to test an incentive approach in order to bring the majority of local actors to understand the benefits of girls' schooling”.
But how can we convince parents, and especially mothers, to send their daughters to school?
The greatest resistance to social change is most evident in the private sphere, within families. In order to build up the trust of the communities and to establish a close relationship with the parents of the students, we have focused from the very beginning on a close follow-up. We cooperate with local NGOs that have assigned a female counsellor in each intervention village that they visit every two weeks. These women organise discussion sessions with mothers, fathers, teachers, girls and boys.
It is therefore a question of empowering the entire community, a key issue according to Fati, the secretary of the association of students'mothers in Birni N'Falla: “We are responsible for the low school performance rate of girls. We give young boys all the time they need to study, but we tend to reduce girls to domestic work”, she explains. For Fati, parents should pay as much attention to their daughter's education as to their son's. “Both can and must go to school as long as it takes” she adds.
In what way is the Sarraounia project's working method innovative?
“So far, girls' schooling projects in Niger have adopted a technocratic vision of gender inequalities, which does not facilitate the appropriation of such a concept by local actors”, explains Balkissa. This is why Enabel and its partner preferred to test a new methodological approach, more pragmatic in this context characterised by an obvious denial of the very problem of educational inequalities, of which girls are the main victims: “relational awareness about the schooling of the young girl”.
For a pilot intervention such as the Sarraounia project, innovation is a strategic priority. The real challenge of this project is twofold. On the one hand, to make local actors aware that girls' schooling is a real social problem for which it is necessary to find local solutions adapted to their own realities.
On the other hand, to motivate local actors to engage themselves on a voluntary basis in collective advocacy efforts in favour of this valuable social change. “To this end, we have set up innovative activities in Niger, such as participatory theatre sessions on key issues such as the burden of household chores or early marriage”, explains Balkissa.
In this same context, Enabel has also started to organise awareness-raising days. We offer three-day immersion visits to each community during which recreational, sporting or cultural activities are organised. The Sarraounia project, for example, has set up a school exchange between students in the 3rd year of Tombo Kasso Rural College and a private school in Niamey. In addition to the links created between students from different social classes, these days allowed female students, who began learning handball this year, to play a match with students from the capital.
Through this initiative, we have helped to create a virtuous circle of communication to promote social change at the local level. Each individual now has the opportunity to be a volunteer link in a chain of citizen awareness on the girl's schooling. This methodology is consistent with one of the key principles of the Belgian Cooperation, namely the support to local dynamics in interventions, which favour endogenous development approaches.
Study trip to Benin
Through the annual Sarraounia competition to reward the most committed actors, the project is expected to stimulate the interest of most of the actors towards the desired behaviour change, in particular, the retention of young girls in secondary school until they obtain their First Cycle Certificate*.
*Brevet d’étude du premier cycle
In September 2017, for example, we organised a study trip to Benin for the best female students from our intervention colleges. These girls, who are outstanding in their studies, are an exception. Giving them such a reward is unprecedented and unimaginable in rural areas. This type of action arouses more interest from parents who are reluctant to send their girls to school, Balkissa explains.
“However, choosing the prize was not easy since, in order to significantly promote the desired behaviour change, the prizes must be attractive enough for the targeted beneficiaries. However, the study trip to a country like Benin for the prize-winning young girls, the majority of whom had never travelled outside their village, seemed like an appealing prize for these girls, their families and communities”.
Watch the interviews in video:
- Sarraounia: Inclusive rural schools for boys and girls - © Enabel
- An inclusive rural college in Niger - © Enabel
- School dropout among girls in Niger - © Enabel
- Sarraounia: relationship-based-awareness-raising to keep girls in school - © Enabel
- Enabel, Belgian Development Agency
- Ministry of Education in Niger