The Gambia norm and culture Vis-à-vis women and girls matriarchal/patriarchal Society
Opinion Piece by The Late Rev. Dr. John Loum
Let me be clear, conceptually, nature has it understandably that women and men are equal in every way shape, or form. Sadly, in Gambia's patriarchal society the trend has been and continued with women and girls' roles has been structurally at home and society largely defined by men. Given that, the men who are the dominant power player, functionally codified the trend, on how women/girls were to operate. At home domestically, also matrimonially as in society extending to their workplaces [ office], etc. For example, I grew up in Gambia where women and girls were not given equal opportunities as boys in gaining any education, unfairly the boys would be in the streets enjoying leisurely their time playing football, and building networks of friendships and groups, in Banjul area boys would go for swinging around the beach or playing at McCarthy square.
Cultural Barriers Limiting Women and Girls
The barrier of institutionalizing Gambian women and girls as second class or socialize domesticated spices who are to be seen as unequaled equal is dismally incrementally changing much still needs to be done. As a trend or norm must be long past gone. All forms of these institutionalized patterns of cultural norms have fizzled out gradually or obliterated.
Solutions for Women and Girls’ Inclusion
Then as we are developing strategies towards remedies and solutions, first global modernity will force on our women, or they will be left in the wind. Second women should have in place a constructive structure on the grass-root level in empowering and creating gender awareness. Along with that the goal should be re-educating and defusing much of the old ways, including cultural norms which could either be a stumbling block or an inhibition in the way of women's dignity, equal acceptance, and gender fair treatment in all spheres of human space and life.
How to break down the barriers to girl child education
The barriers to girls Education are historical! I will even go further by saying that girls have always faced obstacles since the introduction of formal education in the Gambia compared to boys. Although progress has been made over the years and the gap is shrinking, more still needs to be done in sensitizing people in this regard. A significant portion of this success can be attributed to the Education for All initiative, which was implemented by UNESCO in 2004.
The impediments to girls' education are many, but if I were to attribute it to any major problem, I would say it’s more of a cultural problem than anything else. I want to focus on culture because it drives the customs and social institutions of a country, thereby controlling the mindset and way of life of the people. With that, the relevance of culture in this cannot be overemphasized. Culture governs how people live, think, and behave. Culture generally determines who we are mentally and emotionally and that it also shapes our belief system.
How cultural practices contributes to the barrier of educating the girl child?
Social expectations have been a form of pressure placed on girls in the Gambian context. The traditional family structure values a girl’s role in domestic labour, from cooking and cleaning to caring for younger siblings, especially as they get older. Domestic work in certain family settings can be daunting, and that has prevented so many girls from attending school. When the culture values girls as nothing but marriage material and prepares them for that, then their education becomes secondary. This problem is even more present in rural areas.
And even in the event that a girl is enrolled in school, primary school completion remains a challenge. While the primary school enrolment gap has shrunk, primary school completion is a different story. According to UNICEF, for every 100 boys that complete their basic education in The Gambia, only 74 girls do the same, with the numbers even lower in some areas at 64 percent and 44 percent. At the secondary school level, in The Gambia, the net secondary school enrolment rate is low, to begin with, and girls only constitute approximately 30 percent of all students enrolled in secondary or vocational schools.
What is society's role in breaking the cultural barrier to girls' education?
Arguably, the issues of girls’ education circles back to culture. Both the dropout rates at the primary and secondary levels are generally connected to a traditional family structure that values a girl’s role in domestic labour more than education in certain families and certain regions. I see culture as the biggest hindrance here, and a paradigm shift is needed in this area.
Cultural beliefs have a way of holding society with a tight grip, but with a robust sensitization campaign, we can start to break down the line of thinking that has proven to be a barrier to girls' education. As the backbone of the family unit and keeping players in the economy, women play a critical role. Therefore, it is very important for all of us to join hands and support in the breaking down of the line of thinking that is obstructing girls’ education.
Girls' education provision in The Gambia
Why girls find it difficult to access and stay in school.
Do we want to eradicate global poverty? Give girls access to schooling because educated women usually participate more in the labour market, tend to be healthier, marry later and have fewer children, says the World Bank. This line of argument just moves my moral-o-meter, if that’s even a word, to the red! I think we should never substitute a human rights argument into an economic one. Girls should be given access to schooling equally as boys because it is their right. It is as simple as that.
The UN recognises this fact when it called for quality education for all by 2030. However, this is no mean feat and there is a myriad of barriers to achieving this goal. This is the purpose of this blog; to identify the obstacles to girls’ access to education in developing countries, especially in The Gambia. The Gambia will not achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) number four – Quality Education - if it does not recognise and remove the obstacles it faces.
Here are 5 of the challenges in girls’ access to education that The Gambia needs to rectify if it is to achieve SDG 4: Quality Education by 2030:
1. Being the ‘wrong’ gender.
In a report outlining the status of gender disparities in The Gambia education system, it indicates that the country has so far achieved gender parity at the Lower Basic level of education . A slight disparity can be found at the upper basic level and a further increased disparity at the senior secondary level. As a result, only 25% of girls complete senior school compared to 32% of boys. This figure widens significantly in rural areas. We do know that gender stereotypes are still resilient in the division of labour within the household in The Gambia, particularly in rural areas. These stereotypes must be removed or the domestic workload on girls and women offset by labour-saving devices.
These stereotypes are usually ingrained into our Gambian psyche that it is carried, and practiced, outside of our borders. For instance, in the UK, where both a Gambian male and female generally do the same amount of work, women usually find that domestic chores are primarily left to them. A Gambian woman is expected to work and earn some income for the family and also expected to do most of the domestic chores and look after the children too if there are any. How, then, can the Gambian girl excel in education if these heavy gender stereotypes are placed on her wherever she goes?
2. The expense of education
The right to attend school is a basic human right and in The Gambia, there is a free lower and upper basic school for every child no matter what their financial circumstances are. However, for many families in the Gambia, education remains expensive. The poorest families are left to find the extra cash for compulsory items like uniforms, books and other stationery items, and pay exam fees. Some are even asked to pay to maintain the school building. It is therefore clear that the burden of education is heavier on the poorest than their affluent counterparts. Consequently, poorest families are forced to decide which, or how many of their children are sent to school.
However, there are schemes designed to help alleviate these extra expenses with the support of UNICEF. One of these is the Mothers’ Clubs (a community-led advocacy group), which, among other things provide support for children’s education, especially girls. Although this programme has some visible impacts on the enrolment rate and retention of girls, it has limitations such as mobilisation and management. This limits the number of girls they can reach and prevents timely intervention.
3. Distance from home to school
Many a times the distance between home and school are so far apart that it is off-putting for families of girls because of safety concerns, especially if the family was reluctant to let their daughter attend schooling in the first place. However, the donkey “school busses” are helping in allaying parents’ concerns that their children can get to and from school safely.
Although the Gambia government has increased the number of communities that have schools within three kilometres to 95% in 2018, there are still some communities where girls have to endure a very long walk to school under the blistering sun.
4. Scarcity of trained and qualified teachers
Shortage and effectiveness of teachers are the most important predictors of not only girls’ education, but student learning in general. Around 69 million new teachers are needed to achieve universal primary or secondary education. As a result, girls are not receiving a proper education. One of the policies that are common among policy-makers, and which is widely adopted and recommended, is that of recruiting more female teachers to teach girls. This is because there is some evidence evidence that in developing countries, learning for girls increases when they are taught by a female teacher relative to male teachers. This seems like a paradox, or at least difficult to achieve in the case of The Gambia. If fewer girls are completing secondary and tertiary education, then where will the government find the adequate number of female teachers to recruit, train and retain? Female qualified teachers in public schools constitute 37.3, 23.8 and 11.1 per cent in lower basic, upper basic and senior secondary school respectively. It is lower in private schools.
In its Education Sector Strategic Plan 2016 – 2030, the Ministries of Basic and Secondary Education and Higher Education Research Science and Technology pledges to continue to monitor teaching quality in all public lower and upper basic schools and also to provide tailored support to those that fail to meet the required teaching standards. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of this supervisory role by the ministry is yet to produce the appropriate number of high-quality teachers for girls.
5. Menstrual hygiene at school
Menstruation is another key pressure point for girls' education in The Gambia. A lack of hygienic and gender-separated bathrooms in many schools, especially in the rural Gambia can disrupt a girl’s ability to participate in school. Furthermore, teasing from classmates, unsupportive male teachers and access to sanitary materials can prevent girls from attending school during their menstrual period. There are many girls in The Gambia, and around the globe, who feel embarrassed and shameful simply because they are on their period.
It is common for girls to rather stay at home than attend school during those few days of their menstrual cycle. Few days that could make all the difference in studies, revision and assessment preparation. There is more that needs to be done for girls to understand what is happening to their bodies. First, we must talk about menstruation so that it can be normalised. Then, copying South Africa, The Gambia must abolish taxes on sanitary products to make it cheaper and thus, make it widely available. In this day and age in The Gambia, menstruation should not stop a girl from attending school. Unfortunately, it does.
If this new and prosperous Gambia that everyone talks about is to be truly realised, the country must unleash its full potential by making sure that all barriers to girls’ education are removed across the entire country, not just the urban areas. Only then can the nation fully make the most of its best resource; its people.
The SaGG Foundation (Sponsor a Gambian Girl) is a girl’s education movement, with aim of championing the cause for girl child education in The Gambia. Education is a basic human right; our vision is to advocate and champion for girls' education.