After Day of the African Child: Girls threatened by early marriage, but more boys falling behind in school

In parts of Malawi, when a girl reaches puberty, she may receive a night-time visit from an older man – known as a “hyena.”

THE Day of the African Child was celebrated on Monday June 16, commemorating the school protests of Soweto Uprising in 1976, which marked a turning point in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. 

This year’s theme centred on ending child marriage in Africa. Looking at the day after the celebratory dust has settled, is always sobering.

Although many African countries have laws against child marriage, many others don’t. Of the top ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage, seven are in Africa. These are Niger (75%), Chad (72%), Guinea (63%), Mali (55%), Mozambique (52%), Malawi (50%), Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso (all 48%).

Malawi, for example, enacted a law that banned child marriage for the first time in February this year, increasing the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18.

More than half of Malawian girls are married off as children, sometimes from the age of nine.

Shockingly, in parts of Malawi, when a girl reaches puberty, she may receive a night-time visit from an older man – known as a “hyena” – who has sex with girls to “prepare them for marriage”, a report from advocacy group Equality Now indicates.

While the official minimum age of marriage in Cameroon is 18 years, a girl child in some places in Cameroon can be betrothed when she’s still in the womb or as early as two.  Girls betrothed this way are handed over for marriage as early as nine with impunity.

And in countries like Tanzania and Mali, the legal age for marriage of girls is younger than that of boys (15/16 years compared to 18 years for boys).

Boys lose

But although it looks as though the odds are stacked against the girl child in Africa, new research suggests that boys are falling behind at school and dropping out altogether at a rate faster than girls – though it is a largely invisible phenomenon, unlike girls who leave school for “visible” reasons like pregnancy and marriage.

Advocacy group Twaweza today launched the Uwezo learning assessment in Kenya, which measures numeracy and literacy among primary school pupils, as well as other indicators of educational quality such as school attendance.

The results show that girls attend school more regularly than boys in Kenya, especially in upper primary.

This is a counter-intuitive finding, as upper primary (where pupils are aged between 10 and 14) is the time when girls begin to experience numerous threats to their education, including female genital cutting, and early marriage.

It is also the time when girls begin their periods, and some studies indicate that around 66% of girls in Africa know nothing about menstruation until they start their menses, and 1 in 10 school-age African girls do not attend school during menstruation, according to data from Unicef.

In another survey conducted by FAWE in Uganda, 61% indicated missing school during menstruation, and in Ethiopia 51% of girls miss between one and four days of school per month because of menses and 39% reported reduced performance.

In Kenya, 86% and 53% of girls in Garissa and Nairobi respectively miss a day or more of school every two months, but despite all these challenges that beset girls and threaten to terminate their education, Uwezo’s findings show they still manage to attend school more regularly than boys.

Strange selection

It could be that the adversity acts as a kind of selection mechanism – some girls do drop out, but those who remain are the ones who are committed to their education and are determined to make it no matter what.

But perhaps there are economic and social forces that work to lure boys out of school – for one, boys are simply more mobile than girls. They are largely allowed to go out on their own, and often have looser curfew restrictions.

Data fromTanzania’s Demographic and Housing Survey shows that out of the country’s 26 regions, girls have a higher net school attendance rate than boys do in 17 regions, and the highest disparity is in areas that offer boys informal jobs with low barriers of entry.

The biggest gap is in Zanzibar North, where 93% of primary school girls attend school regularly, compared to 74% of boys – many of whom are lured by the quick, easy money of the tourist circuit, working as beach boys and tour guides.

When it comes to educational attainment, however, there is only a small gap between boys and girls in numeracy and literacy as assessed by the Uwezo study, but again, girls perform slightly better.

Still, it should worry governments, parents and teachers that the educational competence is so low across the board. By grade 3, all children should be able to do grade 2 level work.

But just 3 in 10 children in the third grade are able to do second grade work, suggesting that children are going to school but are actually not learning.

Poor scores

Even more worryingly, by the end of primary school, 10% of grade eight pupils are still not able to do grade two level reading and arithmetic.

But the good news is that there is lower teacher absenteeism than in previous surveys, this time round 88% of teachers were in class at the time of assessment.

To turn around the poor learning outcomes requires greater accountability from headteachers, teachers, parents and learners, the researchers say, but perhaps their most radical recommendation is that of shifting focus from exams to foundational skills.

This will require giving incentives to turn round the image of lower primary teachers – as it turns out, the grade to which a teacher is assigned is often entirely at the discretion of the headteacher, who will sometimes assign the lower grades to lazy or incompetent teachers, or even as a punishment for some infraction.

Uwezo radically suggests that the more qualified and motivated a teacher is, the lower their assigned grade should be, which is where the real learning happens.

“With a strong foundation at lower primary level, it will become unnecessary to ‘drill’ learners and device new cheating tactics at the terminal exams.”

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