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Fighting for Girls’ Education in Rural Communities

In sub-Saharan Africa, a girl with hopes for more than a primary education is unlikely to realize them. For rural girls, the odds are even worse. In a region where a minority of all school children—regardless of gender—even complete lower secondary school (ninth grade), parents must fight to give their daughters an equal chance. This was the experience of Fouzia Dahir, a Kenyan Somali woman whose mother personally shielded her from the social and physical forces that threatened to knock her off the path to a college degree. Fouzia’s story is featured in the 2015 Hunger Report video, above.

Not only are women and girls the majority of the world’s hungry people, but they are the chief agents the world relies on to help end hunger. Evidence shows that gender discrimination causes hunger, but it also shows that removing gender discrimination leads to benefits that reach every level of society. When women are empowered, families, communities, and even economies are healthier and wealthier. Fouzia’s life and work illuminate this truth. She is the founder of the Northern Organization for Social Empowerment, a non-profit organization in Kenya that advocates for equal opportunities for rural women and girls and equips them to seize those opportunities.

Fouzia’s organization takes direct aim at the largest, most obstinate barriers that stand between rural girls and an education. The most threatening of these is deep poverty, which forces many parents to pull their children out of school to work, simply because the family’s survival depends on it. Work scarcity and the poverty that results from it exacerbate gender inequality by driving families to make difficult choices about which child gets to go to school. Fouzia’s organization trains rural women to be more productive farmers and connects them to markets so they can earn enough income to send all of their children to school and keep them there.

Social norms pose another pervasive, if invisible, threat to women’s empowerment. Fouzia’s community is no exception. Families who embrace modern education often still hesitate to educate their girls, convinced that their rightful place is in the kitchen. Early marriage is commonplace and virtually always means an end to the child bride’s education. Even girls who manage to evade an early marriage face the next challenge of balancing school and studying with an oppressive burden of domestic work that they alone are expected to shoulder. Many walk miles each way to fetch water or firewood, and also do the household cleaning, leaving little or no time for homework. Many eventually drop out of school. This is why Fouzia’s organization works to start conversations among families and between families and schools that encourage a more equitable sharing of household work within the family.

Fouzia is a catalyzing force in her community who is generating very real economic and social returns and making lasting improvements. This would not be possible but for the uncompromising insistence of her mother, herself illiterate, that Fouzia stay in school. Fouzia sees potential similar to her own lost in every young girl denied an education.