Education is arguably the pillar for all spheres of development. Globally, reports by UNICEF state that 62 million children age between 6-15 years are out of school. Most of these children are in Africa and Asian countries. Countries in these two regions have reported extreme indicators in the health and wellbeing of women and adolescents. Sub-Saharan Africa contributes to a significant population of the world’s children who have never had the opportunity to access formal education. It is unfortunate that these children have never been taught how to read and write at this point of time. According to the World Bank, 56% of the 33 million sub-Saharan Africa children out of school are girls. Girls have continued to be marginalized and denied the slightest opportunity to access any form of education. Yet some studies show that an educated girl is healthier, will delay pregnancy up to a later stage in life and will give birth to healthy children thus lowering maternal and infant mortality rates. These studies continue to show that when you educate a girl she has the ability to lift up herself and everyone around her out of poverty. So why do this communities in sub-Saharan Africa deny girls education?
Africa is a continent rich with diverse cultures. It is the cradle of mankind and full of economic potential but still one of the poorest. For many years, African communities have held strong to cultures that are patriarchal and segregate women. Despite the difference in these cultures- one thing stands out; men have continuously held power systems and set the rules that define the social way of life in most of the African communities. Can we ever achieve gender equality? A commitment made by nearly all African countries in line with the global goals for sustainable development. What should communities in Africa do differently is the question that we should all answer while reflecting on our ways of life and what truly defines us as Africans.
Elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls including total abandonment to Female Genital Mutilation should be our starting point. Girls’ education faces numerous barriers. For the wellbeing of African women, we should increase their knowledge levels and make them aware of their sexual reproductive health and rights. FGM is considered to be one of the most barbaric and harmful cultural practices to the women of Africa. This practice, denies girls a chance to education and makes them vulnerable to HIV/AIDS among other reproductive health risks. African leadership-mostly male dominated has its work cut out, they should take the lead to promote the health and wellbeing of women in Africa.
African countries with high FGM prevalence also record one of the lowest literacy levels among women and girls age 15-24 years. Ethiopia practices FGM type iii which is the excising of the clitoris and labia of a girl or woman and stitching together the edges of the vulva to prevent sexual intercourse. The national FGM prevalence rate of Ethiopia is at 74% which means 7 out of every 10 girls in Ethiopia has undergone gone this traumatizing experience. This act is also a violation of rights and the challenge falls squarely on the leadership of Ethiopia. Until when will they stand up against this inhumane act on their girls? Ethiopia has a literacy level of 47% for women. Mali, in West Africa has even more alarming figures where 9 out 10 women and girls in Mali have undergone FGM. The literacy level for women in Mali stands at 34%. The World Health Organization estimates that 3 million girls are the risk of undergoing FGM every year. Many of these girls will never access education and those who had the rare opportunity will have their dreams cut short.
Despite all these challenges for women in Africa. A silver lining cloud is seen in some countries. Botswana and Uganda have recorded the lowest FGM prevalence below 1%. Girls in these two nations are given equal opportunities to attend school as their boys’ counterparts. Botswana has one of the highest literacy levels for women among African countries at 96%. This is clear evidence that abandonment of harmful cultural practices like FGM will set us on the clear track to achieve gender equality. Ending FGM means a new dawn for African girls. They will get the opportunity to enroll in school as opposed to being married off while they are still adolescent girls.
I visualize of a new Africa, where all women will share equal opportunities and rights with men. I dream of Africa where the women and girls will have increased knowledge on their sexual reproductive health and rights with empowerment to stand up and say no to retrogressive culture. A continent where gender violence practices such as FGM and rape will never find their way into people’s way of life and men will stand up to respect women’s rights. Through educating women maternal mortality will scale down to zero as education is the social vaccine to African women health challenges.
Article by Meshack Ian Acholla | Twitter @Acholla_