Adolescent girls are often forced to leave school in Africa, but a new programme is bringing the classroom to them
Brac’s ‘study club’ targets girls who have dropped out of secondary school so they can continue to receive academic tutoring. Photograph: Chris Noble/Aurora Photos/Corbis
We face tremendous problems keeping girls in school as they transition through adolescence. In Sierra Leone, 30% of reported rapes take place in the school environment, and a recent ruling banned “visibly pregnant” girls from school. When the school itself becomes a hostile setting, it should come as no surprise that dropout rates shoot up.
Education programmes tend to fall short when it comes to dropouts. Brac schools have raised primary and pre-primary enrolment rates in six countries, getting 1.3 million more children into classrooms – most of whom are girls and all of whom would otherwise be left behind. But we need to think more creatively when it comes to adolescent girls who have already dropped out.
We are piloting a programme in Tanzania – where only 36% of all children go on to secondary school, mostly boys – to educate girls who have already dropped out. I recently visited the northern region, where dropout rates are highest. In Mwanza, I met a girl named Kesy. She’s just completed her primary leaving examination for grade 7. “My parents did not let me go and see my results, nor did they go to see it. I did not go back to school after that,” she told me.
Girls like Kesy drop out for a host of reasons: poverty, early pregnancy or marriage. They also face gender-based violence and harassment, parental indifference and traditions that inhibit girls’ ability to make their own decisions. I’ve even heard stories about parents bribing teachers to declare their daughters dead so they don’t have to return to school.
It is impossible for girls to return to school after they have dropped out. Catching up would require a costly course in self-study, which few can afford. We’re exploring an alternative: bringing schooling back to the girls, rather than vice versa.
Kesy is now part of a Brac “study club”, a programme that targets girls who have dropped out of secondary school or were unable to continue schooling because they failed the primary leaving examination.
We’ve set up 150 study clubs – girls-only safe spaces, situated in borrowed or rented rooms outside the school setting and within walking distance of girls’ homes. The girls, numbering about 13 per club, meet five times a week, receiving academic tutoring in the mornings and life skills education in the afternoons. Each club is led by a “community tutor”, a recent secondary school graduate from the area, who receives a small stipend.
We provide a limited number of self-teaching textbooks, which are shared among groups of three or four to save costs. We also provide educational materials such as books and pens for the girls. They are registered in, and the tutors are trained by, the government’s Institute for Adult Education (IAE), the entity charged with overseeing continuing education. Brac provides additional support through monthly refresher training for the tutors.
In Tanzania only 36% of children go to secondary school. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
To fill the community tutor positions, we drew from Brac’s existing networks of microfinance groups and livelihood programmes. We also conduct community and parent meetings to heighten awareness of the importance of keeping these girls on an educational track.
We aim for a holistic approach that will give the girls a second chance at education and make them more aware of their capabilities. The combination of education and life skills along with parental awareness will help them reach their potential.
The results so far are positive but anecdotal; an independent evaluation will determine how and whether we scale. However, the support and enthusiasm from the community and government is inspiring. The pilot now reaches 1,950 girls in five regions, operating with support from UK Aid’s Girls Education Challenge.
The idea of safe spaces for girls isn’t new to Brac. We have already recorded remarkable changes in their lives through participation in a programmes called Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA), which combines life skills and livelihood training with micro-loans in a girls-only club setting. These clubs operate in five countries in Africa.
In Uganda, where 70,000 girls belong to these clubs, a randomised control trial recorded a drop in pregnancy rates, a rise in self-employment and 83% fewer reports of forced sex. These were all attributed to participation in ELA clubs, which are run in partnership with the MasterCard Foundation.
But until now, we haven’t applied the safe spaces concept to academics. There are others working in this area in Tanzania, but we don’t know of anyone doing similar study clubs. Unicef, the Forum for African Women Educationalists (Fawe), Camfed and Tanzania Education Network are looking at ways to keep girls learning, with Unicef particularly concerned with keeping options open for young mothers.
Brac has committed to scaling up girls’ education and empowerment efforts, and piloting new ones like these, in at least eight countries. To do this, we look forward to learning from others as part of the Collaborative for Harnessing Ambition and Resources for Girls’ Education (Charge), which brings together 40 organisations pursuing similar goals under the umbrella of the Brookings Institution.
I can see the difference the Tanzania study clubs are already making. These girls have enthusiasm, will and ambition. Many declare they want to be teachers. We need to give them the tools they need to build their futures.
Rafiath Rashid Mithila is the senior manager of education at Brac International
THE poor do not just lack money. They are also often short of basic know-how, the support of functioning institutions and faith in their own abilities. As a result, note Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in their book, “Poor Economics”, published in 2004, it takes “that much more skill, willpower and commitment” for the poor to get ahead. No wonder escaping extreme poverty—usually defined as living on less than $1.25 a day—is so hard.
Even the most successful schemes to lift (and keep) people out of dire poverty seem to work only for some people, in some places, some of the time. For example, microcredit works best for the relatively enterprising, who are rarely the very poorest. Similarly, cash transfers linked to school attendance are useful, but require a working education system. What succeeds in one country may fail elsewhere, thanks to different conditions and cultural norms. And the poorest are often the hardest to help.
This dispiriting picture makes a new paper* by Mr Banerjee, Ms Duflo and several others all the more striking. It claims to have identified an anti-poverty strategy that works consistently, based on a seven-year, six-country study of more than 10,000 poor households. The secret, the economists argue, is to hand out assets, followed by several months of cash transfers, followed by as much as two years of training and encouragement. That formula seems to have made a lasting difference to the lives of the very poorest in countries as different as Ghana, Pakistan and Peru.
BRAC, a big Bangladeshi NGO that originally came up with this approach to tackle abject poverty, calls it a “graduation programme”. Given the many problems of the poor, the logic runs, it is useless to apply a sticking plaster to one while leaving the others to fester. For example, various NGOs, including Heifer International, Oxfam and World Vision, give cows, goats or chickens to poor people in developing countries, to enable them to earn an income selling milk or eggs. But what if the recipients are so hungry that they end up eating their putative meal ticket?
BRAC’s idea was to give those in the graduation programme not just chickens but also training on how to keep them, temporary income support to help them to resist the inevitable temptation to eat them, and repeated visits from programme workers to reinforce the training and bolster participants’ confidence. The economists studied schemes along these lines run by local NGOs in Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, India, Pakistan and Peru. The programmes all targeted the very poor: as many as 73% of participants in India and 66% in Ethiopia lived on less than $1.25 a day.
In all six places households in the programme chose an asset, typically livestock, as a one-off gift. In addition, they received enough money to buy a kilo of rice a day for as long as a year. They were given training not just on how to exploit their chosen asset, but also on keeping themselves healthy. Lastly, the NGO provided a safe way to save money, along with encouragement to do so. Although some details, such as the type of livestock people received, or the emphasis placed on saving money, varied from country to country, the nub of all six schemes was the same.
The results were promising. At the end of the programmes, roughly two years after participants first enrolled, their monthly consumption of food had risen by around 5% relative to a control group. Household income had also risen, and fewer people reported going to bed hungry than in control households. The value of participants’ assets had increased by 15%, which suggests that they had not improved their diets by eating their chickens. Rather, each person in the programme spent an average of 17.5 more minutes a day working, mostly tending to livestock—10% more than their peers. (The impact did still vary by country, being weakest in Honduras and Peru and strongest in Ethiopia.) Even more striking, the programme had strong, lasting effects on consumption and asset values even for the poorest tenth of households it reached—the poorest of the poor.
Perhaps most important, when the researchers went back and surveyed households a year after the programme had ended, they found that people were still working, earning and eating more. Were these gains to persist even longer—as they have in Bangladesh, where another study has been able to track people an additional year down the road—the researchers reckon that the graduation programme would have benefits of between 1.33 and 4.33 times what was spent on it. (The only exception is Honduras, where it did not break even, in part because the chickens that many people chose to receive kept dying.)
Not chicken feed
The costs of the schemes, which varied from $414 per participant in India to $3,122 in Peru, look daunting. But the help is intended as a one-off, whereas many anti-poverty drives in the developing world are never-ending. That makes graduation programmes cheaper than many of the alternatives. India, for example, spends about 0.3% of GDP every year on a workfare programme that reaches about 50m households. Reaching the same number of households through a graduation programme would be a one-off cost of about 1% of GDP.
Besides, it might be possible to achieve the same effect more cheaply. For one thing, it is not clear that all the elements of the programme are necessary. A recent study of a similar scheme targeting the very poor in Uganda found that more frequent home visits bring little extra benefit. This is the most expensive part of the programme, costing twice as much on average as the direct transfers. It could perhaps be eliminated or curtailed. Even as it is, the blight of abject poverty looks a little less intractable.
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder and chairperson of Brac, has urged a shift in focus from school enrollment to quality of learning. Credit: Brac
Investment in school systems rather than a narrow focus on enrollment numbers will be the next challenge for the global humanitarian sector, said Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder and chairperson of Brac.
“We have been able to get children into school, but the next task is to give them high quality education. Many countries are failing to provide quality education to their children, including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan,” said Abed, who recently won the 2015 World Food Prize for his contribution to reducing poverty in his home country Bangladesh and 10 other nations.
“There are so many children going to school but not learning much. This is going to be a big challenge – how to provide quality education to children.”
Abed left a job as a senior corporate executive at Shell Oil in London after the 1971 Liberation War that led to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. He began with a small relief operation in 1972 in a remote village of Bangladesh after the country was hit by a major cyclone, before founding Brac. Today, the NGO employs 110,000 people in Bangladesh and works in areas such as microfinance, education, healthcare, legal services, community empowerment and social enterprises. Worldwide, Brac has helped around 135 million people, with operations in regions including Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.
Thanks to a funding model that helps it generate revenues from its different assets and funnel them back into Brac, the organisation relies on donors for only 25 per cent of its financing needs. This allows it to follow its own agenda and test new models without necessarily seeking donor approval.
To date, Brac has educated nearly 7 million children, including helping 5 million girls to attend primary school. The organisation has also helped reduce infant and child mortality in Bangladesh to 40 in 1,000, down from 250 almost a decade ago.
“If you are looking for challenges for the future, the other is how to eradicate extreme poverty in the world so that everybody has a decent meaningful life to lead,” said Abed. “These are the next generation of challenges that we must face and win.”
Another pressing topic is developing mechanisms that help developing nations adapt to climate change, which hits poorer communities hardest, he said.
“Climate is going to bring in its wake a lot of problems, which we need to solve. We need to adapt to some of them. We also need mitigation, in other words the lifestyle has to change in a lot of the developed world to be able to cut down carbon emissions. That has to happen in the West, but in our countries we need to adapt to climate change aspects like drought, saline water, water logging, and things like that,” he added.
The world is also becoming less equitable, and there’s a need to build societies that promote equal opportunities for everyone, instead of equality of wealth, he explained.
“People should have opportunity to rise through their own hard work. These are the kind of societies we want to build. We don’t want to build a society where opportunities are reserved for a few.”
Gender equality is at the top of Abed’s list of challenges to tackle through Brac’s programmes. Describing it as “the unfinished agenda of my life”, he noted that human societies would be much happier if gender equality was achieved.
“For our own sake we need to develop equality of opportunity or all men and women, girls and boys,” he said.
7 April 2015
24 March 2015
26 January 2015