Today world leaders and ministers gather in London to commit to transforming education for the world’s most vulnerable children. Among them will be recently elected President of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, who has made education, particularly for girls, a central focus of his mandate.
Niger faces a number of crises: conflict, displacement, malnutrition, disease and shocks driven by climate change, with more than 2.1 million children needing humanitarian help. These challenges, as well as a shortage of resources to invest in education, explain why Niger lies at the bottom of the Girls’ Opportunity Index and is one of the worst countries in the world to be a girl seeking 12 years of quality education.
According to the Nigerien National Education Plan for 2020-22, only 42 per cent of girls are enrolled in basic education. Compare this with 58 per cent of boys.
Extreme poverty, unsafe schools and low-quality education contribute to low access. Before the Coronavirus pandemic, a girl could expect to receive the equivalent of 2.4 years of quality education in her lifetime (compared with still only 2.9 years for a boy). At the start of 2020, 2.6 million children were reported as being out of school. The pandemic has exacerbated this learning crisis, with a further 1.2 million children estimated out of the classroom due to restrictive pandemic measures in July 2020.
The terrorist-driven conflicts along Niger’s extensive southern borders with Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Chad have seen teachers specifically targeted and killed. Many schools have closed as communities flee extreme violence. Both in and beyond these regions, children often have to travel long distances to reach schools, with little transport available. Girls are especially at risk of harassment along the way.
As well as safety and security concerns, girls in Niger face barriers to education due to conservative social norms. These define a woman’s role in society, while sustaining harmful practices and restricting their rights to education.
Niger has the highest rate of child marriage and the highest fertility rate in the world: three out of four girls are married before the age of 18 and 28 per cent before the age of 15 – the legal age of marriage for girls in Niger. By the age of 18, 45 per cent of girls are pregnant or have had a child. Children are giving birth to children, and teenage pregnancies are extremely detrimental to a girl’s health and their children’s chances of surviving and thriving.
Investing in girls’ education boosts incomes and develops economies. It creates healthier and safer societies. With just an extra year of education, a woman’s earnings can increase by 20 per cent. A child whose mother can read is 50 per cent more likely to live beyond the age of five, twice as likely to attend school themselves, and 50 per cent more likely to be immunized. A mother who can read is more likely to have an equal say in when she has a baby and how many she has.
This is why Britain has led efforts to secure the new G7 Girls’ Education Declaration, to get 40 million more girls in school, and 20 million more reading by the age of ten, or at the end of their primary schooling, in low and lower-middle-income countries, by 2026.
President Bazoum recognizes that education is critical in addressing Niger’s rapid population growth, and in developing one of his country’s greatest assets – its young people. Despite heavy security demands on the national budget, he has committed to progressively increase the education budget allocation to 22 per cent by 2024.
He has also committed to providing more schools and school dormitories for girls so they don’t have to travel such long distances – currently 15km on average in rural zones – and to encourage parents to keep them in education. His ‘zero straw-hut schools’ initiative aims to build better schools and to improve the teaching environment. Improving the quality of teaching is another priority.
Niger is a clear example of the need for investment in education to improve access for girls.
I welcome President Bazoum’s active participation at the Global Education Summit and hope his strong commitments will help attract funding. Niger and President Bazoum face many challenges, but in beginning to tackle them, the education of girls is a good place to start.