Sitting at the very bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index, Niger is a country crippled by political instability and chronic drought. Women and girls bear the brunt of the country’s struggles. Only 15 percent of adult women in Niger are literate, and according to the U.N. Population Fund child marriage remains prevalent: 75 percent of girls under the age of 18, and 36 percent of girls younger than 15, are married.
Since 2012, Mercy Corps has been working in Zinder – a “child marriage hotspot” where 58 percent of girls are married before they turn 15 – to reduce child marriage and maternal mortality rates. Bringing together groups of adolescent girls (10 to 18 years) for weekly meetings with a mentor, the Safe Spaces program encourages girls to marry later and delay having their first child.
Last year, Mercy Corps broadened its work with those young women and girls with the launch of its SAFE Schools program (SAFE stands for Supporting Adolescent Girls’ Future through Second Chance Education). Running in partnership with Niger’s Ministry of Education and a local NGO partner, Organisation Nigerienne des Educateurs Novateurs, the program helps adolescent girls from vulnerable households to enter or re-enter the education system. Since its launch, more than 500 girls have enrolled, 27 teachers – mostly women – have been trained and 20 learning centers with their own management committees have opened in the Maradi and Zinder regions.
Aissatou Djimraou, Mercy Corps’ national gender adviser in Niger, and Peter Gaff, the organization’s grants and new initiatives manager, spoke with Women & Girls Hub about the SAFE Schools program and the importance of family in getting girls an education.
Women & Girls Hub: Who are the girls participating in the SAFE Schools program and how are they selected?
Aissatou Djimraou: We’ve been working in the Maradi and Zinder regions since 2012 to improve food security in 62 rural communities. About two years ago, during a visit with some colleagues to learn about the Safe Spaces program, a young girl named Badariya approached me. She told me how much she wanted to go to school, but her father wouldn’t let her. In her family, only the boys went to school. She was about 12 years old at the time, and her motivation to learn impressed me so much. From that moment we designed and implemented community-level literacy classes for girls. A while later, we had the opportunity through support from the Nike Foundation to launch the SAFE Schools program in 20 villages.
The girls were identified from the existing Safe Spaces program in our target communities in Maradi and Zinder – girls who never went to school, like Badariya, or others who had to drop out at an early age.
As a condition for participation, they and their families had to express the desire to take part, committing to two years of participation in the SAFE Schools program. We don’t provide incentives for families, but we’ve been really impressed by the commitment that they have shown to educating their daughters. Many parents, in fact, regret that they didn’t let their child go to school in the first place. Even if they regret this, it doesn’t necessarily keep them from repeating the same mistakes – which is often what we see in families who only let their boys attend school, for example.
Women & Girls Hub: What are the biggest challenges that the girls face in this accelerated learning program?
Peter Gaff: One of the biggest challenges is simply getting up to speed in a scholastic setting, when many of the girls have never set foot inside of a classroom before. They start off with a handful of months of instruction in Hausa, their mother tongue, and then they go directly into French. So the program asks a lot of them. But the curriculum that we use has been designed and tested exactly with their profile in mind, so they can succeed. For the most part, we’ve been encouraged by their progress.
Women & Girls Hub: Do many give up before the end of the two-year program?
Gaff: Ongoing social pressure, which may come from specific family members, from friends, from traditional or religious leaders or other members of their community, says that education is not necessary for girls, that their most important roles in a community are as wives and mothers and minders of the household. This attitude has a lot to do with why girls drop out or, to be more accurate, why they’re removed from school. It typically isn’t their choice. However, our retention rates were very solid in the first year of the program – more than 90 percent of the girls who started the school year finished it.
Women & Girls Hub: Do you anticipate expanding the program?
Gaff: The Ministry of Education has already adopted the model we’re using as its standard for “second chance” schooling in Niger. However, it’s never been used exclusively with girls before, and with our implementing partner we’ve tweaked the curriculum a little to include a gender component. So our hope is that the ministry will recognize the model as being appropriate and effective in all-girl classrooms and endorse its use in this way. But of course we’d also love to have additional funding to continue to target at-risk girls.
Women & Girls Hub: How are the girls affected by this opportunity?
Djimraou: At the end of their first year, the girls were proud to show that they all knew how to read and write. All of them grabbed pens and pieces of paper to write their names and phone numbers of their fathers – they wanted to show us how they could write both letters and numbers. The program is a real source of hope for the girls. It gives them the opportunity to rejoin the formal school system, continue and earn a diploma just like any other student who started at 6 years old.
We’ve seen also that it’s a real source of self-confidence for the girls. Many have asked for school uniforms – they want to be recognized in the community just like kids going to formal schools. Twelve- or 13-year old girls are already old enough to know a bit about the world – old enough to have goals and hopes. They are motivated to continue, to one day become teachers, health workers, leaders. It’s really a second chance.