Maybe, Rakia Soumana sometimes thinks, life could have been a little different. It’s not so bad in Tessa, her village in rural Niger, where she lives with her three children, her husband, his first wife Halimatou Soumana, and Halimatou’s five children. The wives get along, each doing more than their share of household chores when the other one is pregnant or has just given birth, and Rakia, 30, wants at least two more children because it will put her family on equal footing with Halimatou’s. She likes her husband, but she’s dependent on him, and the weight of her daily workload is heavy. Maybe things would be a bit easier if she had stayed in school past the age of 14, if anyone had even noticed when she dropped out. But no one did. She just stopped going. “No one told me to stay,” says Rakia, a tall woman with a teardrop-shaped scar under each eye.
And so with her own children, she is strict. “Two days ago, my first child, I even beat him because of school, because he wouldn’t do his homework,” she says. “I don’t want him to make the same mistake I did.”
In makeshift schoolhouses equipped with wooden benches and blackboards, some girls in Niger who have dropped out of school or never went in the first place try to catch up. In remote villages, NGO Mercy Corps runs these girls’ education centres, classrooms inside hangars covered by thatched or aluminium roofs where girls come to listen and learn. There are between 25 and 30 pupils per school who attend six days a week, 34 hours a week, as instructors walk them through the standard primary school curricula: Reading and writing, grammar, basic mathematics, in Hausa for the first two months and then in French. These centres offer intensive instruction to get girls up to speed in time for their high school entrance exams, so they might be able to attend secondary school and, advocates hope, be on the track to a marginally more secure life.
But there are a lot of girls who are left behind.
Women and girls in Niger are some of the least educated in the world. Fewer than a quarter of young Nigerien women are literate, and only about 8% of Nigerien girls attend secondary school. Only 31% attend primary school, although almost twice as many girls are enrolled – they just aren’t showing up. The UN’s Education Index, calculated by comparing the expected years of schooling to the average years citizens actually attend school, places Niger last among 187 countries. In a country debilitated by crushing poverty and increasingly tested by violent extremism, huge numbers of under-educated young people forecast a troubling future.
Men and boys, too, face low rates of education and literacy in Niger, but women and girls remain worse off. Economically and culturally, boys tend to be afforded more opportunities, and when a family decides it can only send some of its children to school, it’s the girls who stay home. That, advocates say, feeds into a series of other social ills. Chief among them is early marriage, which brings with it poverty and high rates of infant and maternal mortality. Marriage, says Maggie Janes-Lucas, Mercy Corps’ senior programme officer for west and central Africa, “can be physically, emotionally detrimental to her and to her longer-term health. We believe that giving these girls the opportunity to integrate [into] formal schooling and to continue their schooling will reduce these risks.”
Low rates of education also help keep Niger poor. One World Bank study found that a year of secondary schooling can mean as much as a 25% increase in a woman’s earnings later in life, which in turn helps fuel her country’s economy. According to some estimates, a single percentage point increase in girls’ education translates into a GDP boost of .3%. And an educated mother is more likely to send her own daughters to school, fueling increased educational attainment and economic development over generations.
Getting more girls into school, then, is a linchpin to increase wealth, stability, equality and development. Niger has a long way to go on the UN’s sustainable development goals for both education and gender equality and investment in education remains outpaced by need. The complex set of intertwined political, cultural and economic forces keeping the country impoverished and volatile means the simple task of getting girls to stay in school is bigger than it looks – and a challenge even the most dedicated educators and advocates have yet to figure out how to meet.
Niger’s startlingly low rates of literacy and education are both caused by and feed back into a cycle of poverty, early marriage and large family size. For the Soumana children, and children across Niger, the barriers to formal education are high. In a rural country, schools are often far from the village, and students walk several kilometres each way in the punishing heat. Many schools don’t have functional latrines, and so when girls start their periods, they stay home. Teachers are often on strike because they aren’t paid well or go months without being paid at all; this year, education advocates say, public school teachers have been on strike nearly half of all teaching days, leaving their students well behind in their studies.
Under the Nigerien system, students have to pass an exam to enter secondary school, and when they aren’t going to school consistently, many of them fail and drop out. Even when students attend school, Niger’s low literacy rates and booming numbers of young people – almost half of Niger’s population is under the age of 15 – means there simply aren’t enough literate, trained teachers to go around. Much of the educated population leaves. As a result, especially in the country’s more rural reaches, much of the in-classroom instruction is only just about better than nothing.
“The huge problem is that with that rapid population growth no matter how many schools we build or how much support we give the ministry of education, it’s never enough,” says Patrick Rose, who works as a crisis communications specialist for Unicef in west and central Africa. “It’s a moving target. You can set a target and deliver X amount of schools for X amount of population, but the reality is it’s growing faster than anyone is able to cope with.”
Conflict, too, keeps girls out of school. The kidnapping of the Chibok girls from their school in northern Nigeria made headlines around the world, but it’s only one in a long list of assaults Boko Haram has leveled on schools, snatching girls and killing teachers – including in Niger. In the Diffa region of the country, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced by war. Parents fearful for their children’s lives don’t want to send them into danger; teachers fearful for their own often stay home or flee.
Educators, then, face bigger challenges than just getting children into the classroom. To reach students who are kept out of school due to conflict, Unicef and the EU are working on a programme that will bring educational radio into people’s homes. Communications volunteers will deliver small radios to families, many of whom live in homes without electricity or running water, and some 150 educational programmes will be broadcast out to them. “It seems like a low-tech solution,” Rose says. “Everyone is like, ‘We should be doing 3G tech stuff,’ and in New York that sounds really cool, but when you get out to these communities you see that it is a cool innovation.”
Other strategies are even more straightforward – for example, offering bilingual education to students coming into the classroom for the first time at seven or eight years old. Niger’s education system is in French but families speak local languages at home, meaning children who didn’t spend their early years learning French are intimidated and discouraged. It’s a huge task to develop a bilingual curriculum, especially in a nation with nearly two dozen spoken languages. It’s an even bigger project to make sure teachers can and will teach in multiple languages. It works, Rose says, by making sure that “not every day is an exercise in humiliation”.
In a nation with so many educational gaps, other organisations work to fill them in a hodgepodge of ways. Unicef outreach and the Mercy Corps programme to help girls catch up, called Safe Schools, are just a few of many – but it’s still not enough.
Stubborn social norms are a big roadblock. Amadou Mamadou, the Safe Schools programme manager in Niger, says that when many girls are married by 15 and a majority of them are married by 18, after which they’re expected to focus their efforts on childbearing and housework, many parents just don’t see the point in educating a girl. Resources are limited, and any time or money available for education seems better invested in boys. And when girls do go to school, he says, they aren’t supported and encouraged as much as boys, so “they are set up for failure”.
The first step, then, is shifting the perspective of the local communities. And so when Mamadou’s team goes house to house in rural villages, they come with the message that educating children – and girls in particular – puts the whole family on better footing, and they give members of the community a role in shaping the schools themselves.
For impoverished households, the prospect of their children having better job opportunities sounds appealing. The Safe Schools team also tells families that an educated girl tends to grow up into a healthier mother, whose babies do better in life. Looking around, many families are able to observe this dynamic in real time. Most of the time, they like what they see, and are inclined to believe they’ll benefit from educating their children.
But sometimes, especially in the more conservative and religious areas of the country, parents see the changes education brings and are less pleased. According to Mamadou, sometimes, girls go to high school and when they come back to the village “they’ve changed,” he says. “They’re not taking on the traditional roles they would have if they hadn’t gone to school.” Their behaviour and their ideals no longer sync up with their parents, which the family – and others in the community – may find distressing.
Pathfinder, an NGO that works in Rakia Soumana’s village, works to break down misconceptions and stereotypes around gender – that family planning is only for the educated, and that education isn’t important for girls. “All the educated people in Niamey [the capital city], they agree to go for family planning,” says Garba Kimba, the director of a health centre which works with Pathfinder. “But if you go to the community level, most of them are ignorant” – by which he means they lack basic education. And that impacts birth rates, keeping them sky-high, which in turn weighs on Niger’s already limited resources, its pervasive food insecurity, and its fragile political system.
“It’s because of lack of education,” Mai Fanta, an older midwife at a health clinic in Niger’s Magama region, says matter-of-factly. “The history of Niger, they wanted many children to work in the fields,” and as a globalised economy and the realities of climate change shift that agrarian lifestyle, families haven’t caught up.
Soumana’s family still lives in the old way: she pounds millet, defers to her husband, and believes women’s primary purpose is childbearing. But she’s catching up as fast as she can. Unlike most of her neighbours here, who expect their kids to marry in their teens, she wouldn’t mind if her children married well after they finished college. “Even if they are 30 years old, if they are studying, that is no problem with me,” she says. “I want them to be great people. I want one day to watch them taking a plane to your country, to travel to the United States.”
Getting educated young people to emigrate is far from the goal of NGOs and the Nigerien government, but convincing parents to educate their children is – in part so that those children grow up healthier and can eventually contribute to Niger’s flagging economy.
The most basic solutions to Niger’s education problem come in two parts: changing community mindsets about the value of education so that parents put their kids in school and improving the schools so that attending is actually worthwhile. Doing that requires more resources: to train teachers so they can be effective and so that there are enough of them; to open up dialogue about the value of girls education and challenge assumptions, often fueled by a conservative interpretation of Islam, that girls shouldn’t go to school; to build schools out of quality materials, that have latrines, running water, and dorms for students traveling from remote areas; and to make schools physically safer places for students and teachers alike. It also requires local by-in, and getting parents to internalise a sense of responsibility for educating their own children and valuing education more generally.
It’s a long list, and community involvement is the most esoteric part. But that, advocates say, is the only way to get more girls into the classroom. Mercy Corps, for example, forms local community committees that have a stake in deciding what their Safe Schools programme looks like. Members are encouraged to visit the schools, weigh in on programming and implementation, and identify local girls who have dropped out or never attended school in the first place.
“It’s showing the parents do have a role in this,” says Mercy Corps’ Janes-Lucas. “And that communities do have power in how good their schools can be.