As Rabiatou Diallo made her way to a journalism class at a university in Conakry, the Guinean capital, a young man went up to her to ask why she was wasting her time studying. As a woman, she was meant to become a housewife, he said. Diallo carried on nonetheless, earned a degree and rose to prominence as a blogger and children’s rights activist in the West African nation, followed by thousands on social media.
Diallo’s success reflects a rising wave of educated women shaking up Guinea’s conservative society. There are more girls in Guinean schools today than ever before. In fact, according to World Bank data:
Between 1990 and 2014, Guinea quadrupled the number of girls in primary school — more than any other African nation.
In 1990, only 21 of every 100 Guinean girls were enrolled in primary school, compared to an average of 65 in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2014, that number had risen to 86, with Guinea closing the gap on the rest of the region — the 2014 average for sub-Saharan Africa was 94.
Guinea has long been one of the world’s worst achievers when it comes to putting girls in school. But since the onset of structural reforms in the 1980s, millions of dollars have been poured into a struggling education system by lenders such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Thousands of teachers were hired and trained, and schools were built, especially in rural areas where a lack of facilities keeps kids at home. Enrollment rates have been on the rise for boys as well as girls.
Distribution of school supplies, free meals and scholarships have been instrumental in helping girls get to school.
According to Salematou Tounkara, who works on gender equality for the general inspectorate of education, policies to help poor families, such as the distribution of school supplies, free meals and scholarships, have been instrumental in helping girls get to school.
But finishing school, moving on to university and landing a successful career set Diallo, the activist, apart from many of her peers. As time went by, she noticed girls were leaving school because their parents didn’t have enough money, or the girls were married off, got pregnant and couldn’t juggle marriage and school. Guinea has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with more than half of girls hitched before age 18, according to UNICEF. “The classroom evolved,” she says, “and the number of girls dropped.” Today, she says she’s one of only a handful of women from her home village in Lélouma district, about 120 miles north of Conakry, to have a degree and a job.
Enrollment rates rarely tell the full story, as many boys and girls drop out of the system, like Diallo’s friends did. Even when Guinean girls do attend school, they are often held back by discrimination, the household chores they are expected to perform and a lack of facilities such as separate toilets with running water — especially needed after the onset of menstruation.
“In the morning, many girls will be asked to go fetch water before the start of the school day, which doesn’t happen for boys,” says Helene Cron, education chief for UNICEF in Guinea. “They’ll help with the cooking and the cleaning. There’s a work overload at home.”
All children are affected by the country’s challenged education system — especially in rural areas. The biggest access gap lies between boys in cities and girls in rural areas, says Cron.
The Ebola epidemic, which killed more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, added to the strain as classes were postponed and parents kept their children out of school, a potential hub for transmission. Since the epidemic ended in 2015, indicators are slowly improving again.
But the past few months have seen repeated strikes by teachers demanding higher salaries. Thousands of teachers, students and parents demonstrated, hoping for a better education system. For boys and girls alike, the struggle for quality schooling in Guinea is far from over.
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