In most of the communities where we work, it is not social practice to send girls to school. Resources are scarce and the little money that can be invested in education usually goes to boys. It is a huge challenge to persuade many families and households to agree to send their girls to school. Girls face enormous pressure to stay at home and to fulfil their traditional role as caregivers, wives and mothers. In some places, girls who have been sheltered and kept at home fetch a higher bride price, which incentivises keeping girls away from school.
Once at school, the lack of recognition of a girl’s right to education makes many school environments unsuitable or even unsafe for girls. Most schools were constructed based on the assumption that it would predominantly be boys who would attend; therefore, many lack the proper sanitation facilities required by adolescent girls. Regularly missing school every month hinders girls’ academic progress.
Predominantly male teachers and fellow students do not necessarily recognise or support girls’ right to proper education. With few educated women in their communities, many girls have no one to look up to and no one to stand up for them. There are very few female role models, such as female teachers, to support and encourage girls to stay in school. Having a female role model advocating for girls’ education is a powerful way of showing girls, their parents, and their communities the benefits that a girl’s education can bring.
Girls need school’s spaces where they can feel comfortable, supported and encouraged in their education. AET is transforming school environments and train community-based school mothers who are mentors, advocates and counsellors to primary and secondary school girls.
The Girl-Friendly Spaces project encourages schools to adapt their environments so that girls can feel comfortable, and concentrate at school. Making the school space girl-friendly involves providing girls with a place to study and gather, which is also equipped with a private toilet-block, girls can use without embarrassment or discomfort. Girls-only study spaces also provide the base school clubs which are supervised and assisted by female staff members or senior girls. Clubs provide an opportunity for girls to discuss their problems together and encourage each other in their studies.
The School Mother’s programme works with the school and community to identify local women who volunteer to mentor girls and advocate for girls’ education in their schools. School Mothers work with a specific school, which they visit weekly, and sometimes daily, to support their girls. They run workshops for girls on female hygiene, sanitation and other important life skills. They help teachers understand girls’ needs, and ask teachers to notify them when there are worries about particular girls.
School Mothers also actively advocate for girls’ education in the community. They visit families to provide individual support to girls who are being held back from school or whose parents are considering early marriages for their daughters. They fulfill their advocate role within the Parent Teachers Association of the school, and by liaising with district education authorities.
The School Mothers programme continues to run in South Sudan despite the ongoing conflict. The South Sudan School Mothers have not completed school themselves, but are determined to ensure that the girls in their communities have better chances than they did. The Community Action for Girls project that ended this year supported 4,395 primary school students in Lakes State. Under this project the School Mothers improved knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of boys and girls to sexual and reproductive health and rights so they can lead safe, healthy and HIV-free lives.
In Uganda, our School Mothers are local women who are recognised leaders in their communities. They currently support over 2,000 girls in secondary schools in Northern Uganda and are working to help overcome the legacy of conflict that has left so many girls without an education.
In Somalia, the girl-friendly spaces initiative has reached almost 1,000 girls in Somaliland and Puntland in a number of different schools. The regional government has been so impressed with the results that girl-friendly spaces are now being recommended in national curriculum and policy.
Girls involved in this project have this to say about the spaces:
“We would like to thank the AET for building these fantastic facilities for us. It’s great for the girls in this school and something which we were in great need of. We can use it for many things. Our school is on the edge of the town so it’s far from most of the girls’ houses so it was hard for us to go and come back in time for classes at the break time.”
“School Mothers talk to parents if girls are kept home from school. Girls now love school because the support we get from School Mothers encourages us to attend regularly, unlike those days when there might be only three to four girls per class”