Ouagadougou — An initiative to keep girls in school by supporting income-generating activities for their mothers is bearing fruit in Burkina Faso, where poverty and cultural values still deprive many girls of an education.
"We often buy notebooks and pens for students. It doesn't sound like much, but [lacking those things is] all it takes for some children to stop going to school. It's enough to get a girl married off to a husband."
Mariam Alou is a member of the the Association of Mothers Who Teach (known by it's French acronym, AME) in Sebba, in northern Burkina Faso. The Association was created by the government to consolidate the success of a 2007 campaign to raise awareness of the importance of girls' education; there are now at least 300 AME chapters across the country.
"Mothers must support schools because they know that girls are less likely to go to school," says Marie Claire Guigma, director of promotion of girls' education at Burkina's Ministry of Basic Education and Literacy. "And it's usually the mother's fault, since generally, it is the mothers who keep the girls at home to help with economic and domestic activities."
In Burkina, the school completion rate remains among the lowest on the continent, especially for girls. According to Guigma's ministry, just under 42 percent of students who enter grade one complete their primary education; for girls, this figure is 37 percent.
In the country's northern Sahel region, where the ministry focuses its outreach activities, just 18 percent of girls complete their education.
Guigma's view on who keeps girls out of school is contradicted by her regional counterpart here.
"Women are attentive to girls' education, because men are tending the livestock," says Issa Compaoré, regional director of basic education and literacy in the Sahel.
"Getting girls to stay in school is the challenge, especially in the context of arranged marriages. We know that if the wife can read, it's a first battle won for girls' education."
For several years, the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) has backed income-generating activities for members of the AME like Alou. She says that the sale of milk and other revenue from raising goats and sheep allows her group to provide for and monitor their children's education.
"The AMEs were limited by their own illiteracy and by the lack of resources," said Idrissa Diallo, provincial director of basic education and literacy in the Sahel province of Yagha.
"They reinvest a portion of the profits in the children's education, using the money to buy lamps and oil, thus enabling poorer students to study at night," he told IPS.
Awa Traoré, director of basic education in the Hauts Bassins region in western Burkina Faso, AMEs have successfully improved household income levels.
"We stressed that it is not enough to simply enroll girls in school and the message went through. In some classes today there are more girls than boys. Now we tell them to not just stop at girls, but to support the boys, too," Traore explained in an interview with IPS.
Thus in Foloni and Oumbara in Hauts Bassin, the enrollment rate for girls is presently 66 percent, compared to just 15 percent in 2003, said Traoré.
"If a girl is sick and the family in need, the AME members take care of the girl. But if they suspect a push for an arranged marriage, they will report the matter to the school principal very quietly and they take many discreet actions to prevent early or forced marriages," reveals Guigma.
According to Issa Alou, a parent in Tasmakat, in the Sahel region, men who oppose women's activities are now challenged.
"We tell them that it not only helps girls themselves if they attend school, but it can help their future husbands one day; this is so fathers won't give their daughters away in early marriage when they have money problems."