BENIN — In Benin, a francophone country in West Africa, girls face a number of hurdles when it comes to attending school. Limited by religious traditions and severe poverty, less than half of all girls get the opportunity to learn. But government officials are working to clear the path to girls’ education in Benin.
As a whole, the education system had significant improvements in recent years. With public school fees eliminated via the School Fee Abolition Initiative in 2006, more parents than ever before are financially able to send their children to school.
Beninese schools follow the French model, with six years of primary school, four years of middle school, and three years of senior high—but only primary school is required. Students who complete high school and pass a baccalaureate exam have the option to attend a university, but many choose to attend one of the nation’s five vocational schools instead.
Vocational schools in Benin employ a dual apprenticeship system that pairs traditional teaching with field work. The program is designed to prepare students for the evolving demands of the urban labor force.
Despite advancements, boys continue to enroll in school at a higher rate than girls. As a result, great gender disparity still pervades Benin’s youth literacy rate, with 30.8 percent literacy among females versus 54.9 percent among boys.
One quarter of all children in Benin—most of whom are girls—have no access to school. Without an education, girls are subject to early marriage, and vice versa: religious practices, early marriage included, prevent many girls from pursuing education. Others join convents when they are young; just 11 percent of girls attend past primary school.
Though literacy and enrollment rates remain relatively low, Benin has come a long way since the 1990s, when school attendance was among the lowest in the world and was plagued by gender disparity.
Improvements then and now rest upon two basic elements: government and donor funding to bolster access to education, and public campaigns promoting the value of educating the population.
Beninese education coordinator Regina Guedou took an authoritative stance for the development of girls’ education in her country. She notes the capacity of widespread literacy to lift a nation from poverty, and actively spreads these values to citizens—especially parents—as she travels around Benin.
Guedou and other officials began recognizing and broadcasting the role of early marriage in disrupting girls’ education in Benin. Earlier this year, the Republic of Benin became the 20th country to introduce the AU Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa as a part of The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for Children in Africa.
The initiative is affiliated with the Day of the African Child, a national holiday commemorating student lives lost in the Soweto Uprising, a series of protests on educational rights in 1976.
A representative of President Patrice Talon encouraged those at the campaign launch to keep raising awareness for the cause, and called for leaders to fuse various initiatives to create a unified agenda to eradicate early marriage by the year 2063.
In the days leading up to the campaign launch, leaders from affiliated organizations trained 60 children on their educational rights and the goals of the campaign. Training sessions culminated in a student-powered advocacy statement, which a female student presented at the launch.
The statement calls for free and compulsory education through secondary school, in addition to requesting further government attention and funding be directed toward the issue of ending early marriage. The future of the campaign will involve the encouragement of radical legislation developments.
Girls’ education in Benin has a great deal of room to grow, and people of every age and stature are determined to get it there. Only time will tell whether these efforts will succeed in revolutionizing the educational climate.
– Madeline Forwerck