Fighting For Gender Equality and Girls Education in Mali: A Report From the Field
Mali is a land-locked country in Francophone West Africa that is teeming with ethnic and linguistic diversity. The country’s stable democracy has united the arid sand dunes of the north with the green forests of the south which are fed by the country’s two major river ways. Only 54 percent of all children here complete primary school, and 20 percent never even enroll. However, for girls, the situation is even worse — only 36 percent of girls make it to junior high. At Bamako University only 28 percent of the students are women, and what’s truly shocking is that only 16 percent of women in Mali can read. My task here is to try to understand why.
I began to see what gender inequality looks like on a trip to Ouelessebougou, a town 50 miles south of Bamako. We visited the nearby village of Dafara, where we spent the day speaking with members of the school management committee about the recent improvements in girls’ enrolment and the remaining challenges to ensuring that they stay in school. After spending the morning with the committee members, all but 2 of whom were men, we had the impression that the awareness-raising campaign of a local NGO had worked: gender parity had been achieved in grades 1 through 5, 4 of the 5 teachers were women and they had just build a new junior high school for grades 7 to 9 which girls were attending in even greater numbers than the boys. While some girls in the area were still not attending school at all, and there were a few parents that still needed convincing, it seemed that everyone agreed just how important girls’ education is.
When it came time to meet with the local women’s group, we couldn’t find them. Our colleague from the local Malian NGO went in search of them but it turned out they had gone to collect the mangos in the fields. How strange, every other meeting that day was well attended but these women were nowhere to be found! As it happens, the village leaders hadn’t informed the women’s group that we were planning to interview them. Once we managed to find a few members of the women’s group, we soon found out why they were being kept in the dark. It seems that until these women had learned how to read, the men would regularly steal the money the local NGO was providing to support them and keep it for themselves! Since the local NGO, AADeC, had starting supporting literacy programs and awareness campaigns to support girls and women’s education in 2003, the women of Dafara could read, calculate and manage their own money. AADeC’s efforts opened the doors for women to manage income-generating activities like selling mangos, and a new recognition by the men of the village that women can indeed be leaders in the community.
So while there is clearly still much progress to be made to ensure that girls aren’t married off early, that they aren’t kept home to do household chores and that they access the same chances in life as the boys – education has created a breakthrough for the women of Dafara. As long as they continue to fight for their rights, even the simple right to speak on their own behalf, so should we.