It’s that time of year again. My eight-year-old daughter is now familiar with the annual routine of binder and notebook purchasing, and that feeling of excitement and anticipation that comes with the start of another school year. As we purchase her supplies, I am aware of the stark differences in her reality as compared to the girls I spoke with recently in the West Nile sub-region of Uganda. And yet, I am also struck by the fundamental similarities: for girls everywhere, education is among the most crucial building blocks for their future.
Yet unlike the Washington DC area, in places like West Nile where years of conflict and displacement have left communities reeling, girls drop out of school at alarming rates and most do so before they ever reach secondary school. A quality education is not only important for children to realize their potential and pursue their dreams; it’s a keystone for economic growth and development. The full potential of communities and societies simply cannot be achieved without educating both boys and girls around the world.
Statistics suggest that gender gaps in both enrollment in secondary school, and transition into secondary school, are much higher in West Nile than the national average in Uganda. ICRW and the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Uganda (FAWEU) paired up to find out why.
Our research, collected in partnership with local research partners on the ground, aimed to provide FAWEU with the evidence they needed to further their advocacy and programmatic work in order to advance girls’ education in Uganda. Specifically, FAWEU will use these findings to both advocate for policies that support girls’ retention and re-entry into school at the national level, as well as inform their school and community-based programs to improve girls’ retention in school in the West Nile sub-region.
We found that: 30% of the 805 girls we interviewed between the ages of 14 and 18 years old in the Adjumani and Arua districts of West Nile have dropped out of school, and of those 85% dropped out in primary school; one in 10 has been pregnant at one point; more than 8% have had at least one child; and over 9% are or had been married. And while my eight-year-old daughter has been in school for three years now, the average age at which girls started school in this study was over eight – more than two years later than the recommended starting age in Uganda. Finally, 19% of girls suggested their families had been impacted by recent conflict.
The main reason most girls gave for dropping out was because they couldn’t afford the cost of schooling, but the second most common reason was due to pregnancy, with 12% of girls citing it as the primary reason. And while conflict was only marginally associated with drop-out, it was a very important determinant of early marriage and pregnancy among the girls in our study. Poverty, parents’ level of education, taking on an increasing workload of household chores at home, among other factors, further contributed to both the likelihood that a girl would drop out of school and become pregnant.
Finally, we found that gender beliefs and attitudes play a huge role in girls’ likelihood of staying in school. Girls’ beliefs about their rights and opportunities as compared to boys – or their beliefs about gender equality – were significantly associated with both dropout and pregnancy. For example, girls who told us they agreed that “women sometimes deserve to be beaten” were 2.3 times more likely to have dropped out, and over three times more likely to have gotten pregnant. Girls who agreed that “boys deserve more education than girls” were more than two times more likely to have dropped out or gotten pregnant. In short, many of the factors, ranging from household influences, to school related influences and even community norms were associated with both dropout and pregnancy. This was especially true for gender beliefs and attitudes, and underlines the fact that poor outcomes for adolescent girls including dropout, pregnancy and early marriage, are all driven by unequal gender beliefs.
While many of the research results are alarming, the good news is we do have a way forward. We know that interventions can work to ensure girls stay in school and have the opportunity to decide if and when they want to have children. In order to achieve this, we must ensure that girls feel safe and valued in school, that they feel encouraged and supported by family members to stay in school and pursue their studies, and that they live in an environment where they believe they have potential to contribute to their community’s economic growth and development.
I was encouraged last month when I flew to Kampala to present these findings in front of an audience of donors, Ugandan policymakers from the West Nile sub-region and national level, and other organizations working to improve access to quality education for boys and girls alike. Officials from the West Nile sub-region appreciated the findings, and now armed with such rigorous evidence, will hopefully use it to find ways to improve outcomes for girls in their districts. National policymakers raised the issue of moving forward with a new early childhood development policy that would expand education to pre-school students and help inculcate in parents the belief that all children belong in school. In addition, policymakers and educators in attendance emphasized the importance of ensuring that both male and female teachers are trained in gender responsive teaching, ensuring that girls feel more confident and comfortable, and that boys learn how to support such efforts.
The first step toward making a difference in girls’ lives is to identify and understand the challenges they face. This research helps shed light on the barriers to girls’ education in West Nile, which holds relevance throughout Uganda. As one member of the FAWEU Board of Directors suggested, the country of Uganda will be missing out if these findings are not acted upon. Ensuring both girls’ access to and retention in school impacts not just their own opportunities. It also helps secure the future of their own children, along with their communities, for years to come.
Students at the Pader Girls Academy, a school in Agago, Uganda that serves child mothers and girls affected by conflict. ICRW's research is helping structure an expanded model for girls affected by conflict in rural Uganda and being used by FAWE.
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