How Fatouma is continuing her education following COVID-19 school closures in Mali
While primary education is compulsory in Mali, nearly one third of school-age children do not attend school and almost the same proportion drop out before the end of primary school. This is compounded by persistent insecurity causing schools in particular areas to close, poverty and traditional practices standing in the way of girls’ education. According to national data, 15% of Malian girls are married before the age of 15 and 53% before 18.
It is within this context that 1,533 schools had to close across the country to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving an estimated 403,200 children out of school and putting girls and young women at risk of early marriage and unintended pregnancy. “In my area, girls who are not in school face marriage very early on”, says Fatouma. “If we close schools again, it will increase the number of early marriages.”
Keeping girls in the picture
To ensure girls’ continuity of learning and safe return to school, UNESCO launched the Keeping girls in the picture campaign, which has reached an estimated 400 million people globally.
With support from Wallonie-Bruxelles International, the campaign was rolled out as part of a multi-country project in four sub-Saharan African countries: Benin, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal, with a focus on particular areas where girls’ dropouts are highest and girls’ reenrolment are lowest.
The work in Mali focused on raising awareness and sensitizing girls, community members, village leaders and parents on the importance of education. It received the support of the Ministry of Education and the Education Academy of Timbuktu, and from partners such as the Union of Free Radio and Television Broadcasters of Mali. Campaign messages and materials were translated in three national languages (Fulfulde, Songhai and Tamasheq,) to facilitate and raise local-level engagement.
Advocating for girls’ education
“Let's say NO to the closing of schools, whatever the cause”, says Fatouma. “Girls' education is a priority.” After taking part in a sensitization session, Fatouma believes “education must be at the forefront for parents and especially for us girls who are in regions where traditions and customs make us abandon school for marriage”.
Through 24 sensitization sessions and 30 caravans traveling across 12 villages, 630 broadcasts via community radios, and materials distributed to 17 schools, over 550,000 persons were reached and learned about the importance of girls’ education across 7 communes including Fatouma’s home region of Timbuktu.
Her cousin Rokiatou had to drop out of school following her menstruation. But through the messages broadcasted via the Jamana radio station, she was able to return to school and is finishing her sixth year now.
This work has had an impact well beyond the communities at hand, and beyond girls. It also helped Fatouma’s older brother to return to school after two years of absence working as a mason. In his first term back, he earned a class average of 13 out of 20.
Continued impact and multiplier effect
The work is having a multiplier effect beyond the completion of the project: more villages are engaging, radios continue to broadcast messages on girls’ education and more materials are being translated.
Following project activities, the Education Academy of Timbuktu received an increasing number of requests for further awareness activities and materials on girls’ education from pedagogical centres and schools outside of the project’s reach. Community leaders were also mobilized and unanimously committed to support girls’ continuity of learning and their return to school through information and awareness efforts.
Some 15 schools are reported having reopened following the awareness raising sessions held under the project, according to the Director of the Education Academy of Timbuktu for the school year 2021-2022. Project materials are also being shared with educational activity centres in six communes to serve as model for youth advocacy.
Fatouma is speaking out for girls’ education and looking forward to what comes next: “I would like to continue my studies to become a doctor to save children and help girls who are victims of violence and forced marriage. I invite all girls to continue their studies because the future of the Timbuktu region depends on it.”
More advocacy and awareness work is needed to ensure girls continue learning, and that progress made on gender equality in and through education is safeguarded. This work contributed to UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition’s Gender Flagship and was funded by Wallonie-Bruxelles International.