issue 240 - February 1993
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
Chalking up victories
Small revolutions are happening in classrooms in Bangladesh,
Ghana and Barbados. Reports from the front row by Shahidul Alam
and Raana Haider, Ajoa Yeboah-Afari and Sara Cameron.
Ever since the 1790s - when British feminist Mary Wolistonecraft railed against training girls to be delicate, foolish, ignorant and vain - education has been seen as the gateway to equality.
In the West girls may still be up against sexist stereotypes about what is 'suitable' for them; about what they are 'good at' and 'bad at'. In the South the problems facing girls are much more basic - such as whether they are allowed to go to school at all. In Africa and Asia many girls are kept at home or drop out of school after only a year or two. Often parents think there is little point in educating girls and they may decide that they cannot afford the school fees or manage without the work their daughters do at home or in the fields.
Activists and teachers in poor countries are trying to bring about change - to get girls into school, to keep them there, and to give those who missed out on school a second chance.
We look at three initiatives from different parts of the South. Shahidul Alam and Raana Haider report from Bangladesh, where only three per cent of girls complete primary school. Ajoa Yeboah-Afari looks at how girls are studying to become technicians in schools in Ghana; and Sara Cameron interviews some determined schoolgirl mothers in Barbados.
At 17 Mozammat Razia Begum is older than most of the girls in her class at the Narandi School. She was married at 15 but her husband abandoned her.
'If I had been educated he would not have been able to abandon me so readily, leaving me nothing for maintenance,' she says. The marriage of young girls without proper contracts - followed soon after by abandonment - is a serious social problem in Bangladesh. Razia blames her parents. 'My parents were wrong to marry me off so young. If I had a daughter, I should not let her marry until she was at least 19.'
The school Razia attends is one of 6,000 non-formal village schools set up by BRAC - the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee - exclusively for pupils who have never started school and those who had to drop out. Three-quarters of the 180,000 pupils are girls. Although married girls are not normally catered for, exceptions are made. Many of the teachers are women: parents in Bangladesh frequently keep their daughters away from school if teachers are male. And each BRAC school is situated right in the community: if schools are far away parents will not let girls attend. It is not acceptable for girls - especially those past puberty - to walk about the countryside in this devout Muslim country.
'I am fortunate to be here,' says Razia, looking round the schoolroom with its tin roof and walls of bamboo and mud. She had to fight to come, though. Her father believes that a woman's place is at home. 'Had I been a boy,' she said, 'my father would surely have allowed me to study.'
Razia's own mother was married at 12 and, like her oldest daughter, had no say in the matter. 'I want my sisters' lives to be different. They should study and be given a choice about their marriage. Husbands will not dare to treat an educated woman badly.' On this subject, Razia becomes quite animated.
Razia would like to go on with her studies after she has completed the BRAC course. During the two-and-a-half hour daily session - which is timetabled to fit in with seasonal work and religious obligations - she learns literacy and numeracy, as well as enjoying activities such as singing, dancing, games and storybook reading.
BRAC have had a remarkable success in keeping the drop-out rate from their schools to five per cent and graduating 90 per cent of their students into the formal primary system. This proves that the obstacles to girls' education - even in such a poor environment - can be overcome.
As for Razia, her experience of life has forced her to question many things she once took for granted - such as the need to get married. She does not wish to marry again. And many other girls have begun to question the restrictions imposed on them. More of them want to be teachers - like their own teacher - or doctors. Razia says: 'I tell my sisters to study well and get a job. If they get a job they will be able to do as well as men and men will respect them.'
No Ghanaian schoolgirl was ever admitted to a secondary technical school before 1987. Now scores are enrolling - for courses in welding, carpentry, masonry and technical drawing.
'This is a big change from the past,' says Sara Opong, Director of Basic Education. She points to the changes in the curriculum which made it possible. 'Our students left school with academic qualifications only, unfit for practical work. We didn't have enough skilled middle-level workers.' So a technical component was introduced for all students - not just the boys.
Today, there is agriculture and welding for everyone in the three years they spend completing their 'basic' education. Also life skills such as art, sewing and cooking. 'Formerly, when the timetable said needle-work,' said Opong, 'the boys went off to woodcraft. Now that's finished.' Opong has on her office wall a beautiful piece of embroidery made by a boy student.
For the girls, new opportunities have opened up. 'The chance to do what were formerly boys' subjects has raised morale tremendously,' says Opong. 'We told the technical schools that they had to admit girls and today girls are taking technical prizes all over the country.
But before girls can get this far they have to have had a primary education. That's not so common in northern Ghana where only one or two in every 20 make it through the full six primary years. Poverty and distance from schools are the main reasons, explains SY Manu, co-ordinator of a project to tackle the problem.
'We give needy girls scholarships,' he said. 'Each girl receives enough money for basics - a uniform, text books and stationery. And we don't decide which girls are eligible. The community decides.' At present only around 360 girls are involved, but rapid expansion is planned.
For it seems to be working. Enrolment rates are up by around one-third. Manu is encouraged: 'We may end up attracting more girls to school than we can cater for.' And the involvement of the community has been vital in helping parents understand the importance of educating their daughters.
Some people object though - saying that boys should receive scholarships too. The logic of 'positive action' - or bias in favour of girls - has yet to be appreciated in some quarters...
Every weekday at noon much of Barbados comes to a stop when an American soap - The Bold and the Beautiful - plays on national television.
A group of teenage mums watch the show during their lunch break at a counselling and skills training centre run by PAREDOS - or Parent Education for Development in Barbados. Kathy, Julia, and Nicole are devotees of the show. On screen, beautiful blonde Brook plots to trap bold, handsome, wealthy Ridge into marriage by getting pregnant. The girls are riveted - but the storyline is a far cry from their own.
'I never want to marry,' says Kathy.
'You can't rely on a man,' says Julia. 'They don't want to be tied down.'
'It's true,' says Nicole. 'The men want to be free to go out to fetes (dances). They don't want to be home with the baby.'
Nicole, aged 16 with a baby son of two months, is the youngest present. She lives with her mother - a maid - and her mason brother. Nicole first had sex at 14. This is not unusual. A third of Barbados School children between 10 and 16 are sexually active, according to a recent survey. But Nicole and the others hoot with derision over the survey's findings.
'That number is too small! Nobody tell them people the truth. They come around and ask you but you don't want to say. There is at least half of them doing it, everyone is doing it!'
The result of 'everyone doing it' is a high rate of teenage pregnancy. The girls say that 'half the girls in my class' get pregnant. 'The ones that didn't yet are just plain lucky,' says Kathy. All the girls knew about contraception but none used it until after their baby was born. All became pregnant in the school holidays. Kathy jokes: 'If we had school all year no-one get pregnant!' For her, school is the best contraceptive.
The condoms and spermicides promoted for family planning are disliked by Barbados people. According to PAREDOS Director Marva Springer, abortion is the only form of 'contraception' teenagers use. At Queen Elizabeth Hospital pregnant girls aged 12 or 13 get priority for abortions - as long as they really want them. Among older teens, abortion is harder to obtain, but Springer says there are ways.
Yet teenage motherhood is common. As elsewhere in the Caribbean 20 per cent of infants are born to teens. And a very high proportion of births - 80 per cent on St. Lucia, for example - take place outside marriage. 'There's no shame in having a child,' says Nicole. 'Anyone who is having sex can have a child.'
Nicole's own mother had her first child when she was a teenager. The same is true of all the others. And none of their mothers live with their fathers, although some fathers give financial support. Julia's father works in the construction business in New York. She doesn't see him but he does send money - sometimes.
Over 40 per cent of households in Barbados are headed by women who act as providers and decision-makers while receiving occasional visits from male sexual partners. Nicole follows the same tradition, maintaining a relationship with the 23-year-old father of her baby - who does pay up - while living with her mother.
The divided West Indian family is laid at the door of 300 years of history during which lasting unions between men and women of African descent were systematically destroyed. Women learned to depend not on men but on each other, especially on mothers and sisters, as do these girls.
But doesn't early motherhood ruin their chances of doing well? Nicole wanted to go back to school after her baby was born but state secondary schools do not accept students over 16. She wants to learn a skill, though, and get a good job. She comes here to the centre and attends evening classes at the polytechnic. Her mother and other family members help out with the baby.
Julia - whose mother is also a maid - used to have ambitions. She stayed at school until she was six months pregnant and then returned to take her matriculation exams. 'Before I had the baby I wanted to be an accountant or engineer.' Now she is doubtful. She may just make it, with the help of the PAREDOS training.
But many teenage mums slip through the net. PAREDOS reaches about 20 per cent. Some can't afford the bus fare into town. Marva Springer says the problems really begin when the girls get pregnant for the second or third time, when they find themselves at 20 with no training and two dependent children. Unemployment is rising since Barbados entered an IMF-inspired restructuring phase a year ago.
Apart from the health risks faced by very young mothers, early motherhood may be helping to perpetuate the cycle which absents fathers from home. This is beginning to be associated not with the down-trodden condition of girls but with the under-achievement of boys. Recent Caribbean surveys show that girls are performing better at school and entering the job market with better qualifications. Lack of male role models in the home is blamed. Rising crime and drug abuse - both young male activities - are also blamed on fathers' lack of involvement in family life.
The struggle between the sexes is taking place not only in the workplace but in the home - and at home the men are losing. The threat of AIDS also means that the days of the free-wheeling sexual style of West Indian men may be numbered. The AIDS Awareness Committee is reporting a drop in sexual activity among Barbadian school children. Nicole says that none of her friends ever talked about AIDS but it's different now. 'You got to be careful.'
Even though steady partnership seems like good self-protection, Nicole is not interested in settling down with her baby's father. 'I don't know about him. You can't tell what will happen.' It's easier to live the way she was brought up, with her mother.
For the teenage mums of Barbados the prospect of a happy settled dependent married life is remote. Trapping a man into marriage and security by becoming pregnant is a nonsensical idea. But Julia, Kathy and Nicole are swept up by those imaginary relationships, glued to The Bold and the Beautiful...