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 African 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 studies show that an educated girl is healthier, will delay pregnancy up to a later stage in life when she is better equipped to navigate pregnancy, childbirth and child-raising, which means that she is more likely to give birth to healthy children, thus lowering maternal and infant mortality rates. These studies consistently 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 these communities in Sub-Saharan Africa deny girls an education?

Africa is rich continent insofar as diversity of 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 African communities.

This begs the question: Can we ever achieve gender equality?

A commitment has been made by nearly all African countries in line with the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, so in light of this, we should reflect on what communities in Africa should do differently in the context of the African identity and our ways of life.

Elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls – and particularly the total abandonment to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) - 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. It denies girls a chance to education and makes them vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, infection, traumatic birth, and a number of other reproductive health risks.  African leadership, which is mostly male-dominated, should take the lead to promote the health and wellbeing of women in Africa.

African countries with high FGM prevalence also record some of the lowest literacy levels among women and girls age 15-24 years.  Ethiopia, which practices FGM type III – in which the clitoris and labia of a girl or woman is excised and the edges of the vulva are stitched together to prevent sexual intercourse – is testament to this correlation.  The national FGM prevalence rate of Ethiopia is at 74%, which means that 7 out of every 10 girls in Ethiopia has undergone this traumatic experience.  This act of violation places a challenge squarely on the shoulders of Ethiopia’s leaders: When will they stand up against this inhumane act on their girls?

In Ethiopia, the literacy level of women is a pitiful 47%.

In West Africa’s Mali, there are even more alarming figures: 9 out 10 women and girls are subjected to what is colloquially known as the cut.  The literacy level for women in Mali reflects the injustice 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 through lack of opportunity and lack of autonomy.

Despite all of these challenges for women in Africa, some countries boast a silver lining to the storm cloud.  Botswana and Uganda have recorded the lowest FGM prevalence in the continent at below 1% each – not surprising when one considers that girls in these two nations are given equal access to education as their male counterparts.  Botswana, in particular, 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 all on a defined path towards achieving gender equality.  Ending FGM means a new dawn for African girls in the form of opportunity; opportunity to enrol in school, opportunity to not be commodified or abused, and opportunity to become competent, capable, and happy women.

I visualize a better Africa, where all women will share equal opportunities and rights with men atop the rich cultural tapestry that comprises the positive aspects of our history.  I dream of an Africa where the women and girls will have increased knowledge of 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 for women’s rights because they truly believe in them.  Through educating women, maternal mortality will scale down to zero and life as we know it will be enriched for the better. Education is the social vaccine to Africa’s suffering.  A razorblade is the source of it. 

 

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