There is consensus at national and international levels that educating girls will reduce child marriage and fertility complemented by the provision of safe, accessible and affordable contraception; empower women and reduce extreme poverty in the long term in Sub-Saharan Africa.
It has been recognized that educating girls and lowering fertility in Africa have been constrained by school drop out for failure to raise tuition and provide school lunch. In many cases, household poverty forces parents to arrange early marriage for their daughters. Cultural factors including against pregnancy out of wedlock have a similar effect. Early marriage results in high birthrates and rapid population growth especially in poor rural communities where the needs for voluntary, safe and affordable contraception are not met, calling for improved physical and human infrastructure and supplies subsidized by government as appropriate.
To overcome the school dropout and family planning constraints discussions are underway including in the preparation for post-2015 development agenda that governments with support from the international community provide free and compulsory primary and secondary education for children whose parents can’t afford.
The discussions on free and compulsory education are in line with various United Nations resolutions, declarations and conventions including the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education which was adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It called inter alia for making primary education free and compulsory; making secondary education available and accessible to all; and making higher education equally accessible to all on the basis of individual capacity and assuring compliance by all with the obligation to attend school prescribed by law.
As a complement to free and compulsory education it has been confirmed that provision of school lunch improves attendance and performance especially of girls. The World Food Program (WFP) which has been active in school lunch programs has demonstrated that hunger affects children access to school, attention span and class behavior. This phenomenon makes it difficult for children to concentrate and perform complex tasks. Consequently many children drop out of school at an early age, get married or have children out of wedlock, resulting in a high fertility level. Early marriage also results in high infant, child and maternal mortality because teenage mothers are not biologically and economically capable.
The issues of ending hunger and malnutrition generally and providing school meals in particular are receiving increasing attention. There is agreement that everyone has an inalienable right to be free from hunger in order to develop and maintain physical and mental fitness.
The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) which is an organ of the African Union (AU) has adopted a resolution calling on all African governments and relevant development partners and financial institutions to support school lunch programs using as much as possible food produced in African countries that would put cash into the pockets of farmers. Due to financial constraints, few countries have implemented the program.
It has also been recognized that education for girls is one of the prerequisites for fighting poverty and empowering women in the long term. WFP has demonstrated that countries most committed to educating girls – and boys – are among the most successful in reducing poverty. Empowered women through remunerative jobs and good incomes lead more fulfilling lives and exercise their sexual and reproductive rights including in determining how many children to have, when and how to space them with assistance of accessible, affordable and safe contraception.
The funding constraint is being discussed at various national and international levels. One of the ways could be to allocate more Official Development Assistance (ODA) funds to primary and secondary education. The Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have suggested at one of the meetings of the post-2015 development agenda that ODA funds should be allocated to priority areas and programs. Hopefully, African governments will comply if there is sufficient political will to educate African girls and empower African women.
Eric Kashambuzi is an international consultant in development issues. He resides in New York, USA.