Despite significant advances in creating greater access to education for girls and boys throughout the developing world, barriers still remain.
Many African countries, in particular, have made great progress toward the priority UN Millennium Development Goal of universal education by 2015.
Schools have been and are continuing to be built; and with public support for education ramped up, school fees and related expenses are increasingly within reach for many parents.
Demand exceeds supply
Yet infrastructure, social, and other challenges persist. With the rise in public support, new classroom blocks are needed to accommodate the number of children who want to attend school. Books, maps, research and reference materials, blackboards, chalk – even pens and pencils – continue to be in short supply, and often not covered by public funding.
Facilities such as kitchens and latrines are also essential to ensure safe, clean and productive learning environments. The availability of meals increases attendance and facilitates learning by giving children who might otherwise be hungry the incentive to come to school, and the energy to concentrate and participate while they are there. Schools require kitchens, and kitchens require equipment, supplies and personnel.
Schools also need teachers, and attracting and retaining teachers in remote or impoverished communities that have schools (but may not have enough classrooms, the necessary equipment and supplies, or teachers’ accommodations) can be extremely difficult.
Teachers affected, too
The problem of teacher recruitment is particularly acute in Northern Ghana, and leaves many schools staffed by underqualified and sometimes unpaid volunteers. Low-quality teaching is another barrier to students staying in school and learning while there.
The view from afar is sometimes a too-rosy one: once governments step up to their responsibility to educate their country’s children, and commit resources and budgets to build schools, we may assume the battle is won. However, achieving real educational outcomes – children attending and graduating with the literacy, numeracy and other skills required to lead a prosperous life – may still be some distance away.
Students in impoverished areas, and especially girls, are still falling through the educational cracks. For families who are food insecure and living at or below the poverty level, any crisis – the failure of crops due to late rains, a parent’s illness, rising prices – often means that education is sacrificed for one or more children to put food on the table. And when choices have to be made, it’s the older students, most often the girls, who lose out.
The barriers can be subtle
It’s in that context that what might seem like the most basic of resources – the availability of clean, well-maintained latrines, for example – can present subtle barriers to education that are the ‘straw that breaks the student’s back.’
Children who don’t have access to clean water and who aren’t taught proper hygiene practices like hand-washing with soap are more likely to be ill and absent from school. Combined with lack of proper nutrition – and often, the schools are the one place they have a guaranteed daily meal – children’s susceptibility to preventable, waterborne disease increases dramatically. Disease also spreads much more rapidly in schools without proper hygiene and sanitation (and even with it, as most parents know).
It is not uncommon to find schools that do not have access to latrines to have attendance rates a fraction of what they are in schools with latrines. The disruption in learning caused by frequent illness can derail children’s education quickly, demoralizing them and ultimately causing higher drop-out rates.
Ratio of girls to boys widens in higher grades
In many schools without proper toilets, children will leave the classroom to ‘do their business’ in nearby trees or bushes. This poses a particular problem for girls, for whom modesty and safety become an issue.
“For many girls, the need to leave the classroom several times a day makes going to school anxious and unpleasant. For older girls, menstruation in an environment where there is no toilet and no water causes embarrassment and further complicates matters. And where toilet facilities are not available or located far away, there is a much higher risk of violence for girls. The risks and hassle just aren’t worth it – and they drop out. There are so many barriers to girls’ education, toilets shouldn’t be one of them,” said Amboka Wameyo, CFTC’s Regional Program Manager – Africa.
In many schools in CFTC’s communities in Ghana, Ethiopia and Uganda, the drop-out rate for girls at age 12 or so jumps to levels that can reach 100 per cent – typically much higher than the drop-out rate for boys. Early or forced marriage, long-distance walks to school that leave girls vulnerable to violence, abduction and rape, the burden of chores at home, and pressure to remain at home to care for younger siblings (especially where educating girls is not valued) present complex challenges for getting girls to school and helping them stay in school as they reach the teen years.
Since we know that for every year of schooling girls’ income increases by 15 per cent or more and their vulnerability to domestic violence, ongoing poverty, and lack of opportunity decreases, the importance of school latrines as a critical resource to support positive educational outcomes for girls becomes obvious.
It’s not enough just to build latrines, they must be located near enough to the classroom blocks that they are safe and convenient, clean, and well-managed. Girls and boys must be provided with separate toilet facilities, too. In Ghana, school latrines are locked during non-school hours as the school’s sanitation and water facilities are often the only ones in the water-scarce communities of Northern Ghana. In many schools, the students themselves are given responsibility for cleaning and maintaining the sanitation facilities.
Clean, safe environments unleash education’s poverty-fighting power
Making access to education available to every eligible student in impoverished areas of the world is recognized by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and by virtually every agency and country working towards these goals as a vital element for reducing hunger and poverty. But it’s important to keep a focus on what might seem like some of the ‘smaller,’ certainly more subtle things: environments that are clean, hygienic and safe so that children (and teachers) can attend school, stay healthy while there, and actually achieve graduation rates that make education the primary poverty alleviation strategy it has the potential to be.