Imagine you are an 8 year old Malien girl. Chances are you spend your days helping your mother pound millet or working in the fields. The thought of going to school never crossed yours or your parents. minds. The closest school is over eight miles away, and you have to cross two streams and three villages to get there. A few of the boys in your village make the long journey and come back with little books that they scribble in, but there seems to be no major change and no reason for more children to go. The boys that do go only attend school until the age of twelve, since the school's highest level is the 6th grade. Afterward, they go back to usual daily life in the village, or they leave the village to look for more schooling in one of the big cities.
The friends I made when I visited the "Peace Corps house" in Sevare, told me that in the villages where they live, only 10% of the girls actually go to school. That must be why we've had such difficulty communicating with most of the women we've met in Mali. Most don't know how to read or write, let alone speak in French (the national language).
"Basic education and girls' education are the responsibility of the public, private, and other sectors. Investing in girls' education benefits the individual, the family, the community, and the nation."
These are the premises upon which SAGE (Strategies for Advancing Girls Education) is based. SAGE, a program funded by the US government (US AID), is attempting to form international, national, and local alliances to combat the problems of girls' education. They have started projects all over the world, from Guatemala to Peru to Southern Africa (hey, sounds like the world trek!), and they are now starting to tackle the issue here in Mali.
One of the main problems with development projects we've encountered during our travels is that all too often, despite good intentions, the projects are ineffective . This is often a result of cultural differences and poor planning. Here in Mali, it is very hard not to notice the overwhelming presence of foreign aid groups. The United States, Canada, England, Denmark, and a number of other European countries have aid projects geared towards improving the way of life for people in this poor nation, but they are far from achieving their goals.
"They don't address local needs," remarks Kadi in reference to the foreign development groups. They have their own plan that was developed in their own country. For example, Kadi's program, SAGE, is funded by US AID. One of the many ambitious goals SAGE is hoping to achieve in the next 22 months is to empower female PTA members to be more vocal.
In my opinion, it's going to be really hard to accomplish this. It is a cultural issue. "When women and men are gathered together in a meeting place, the women will not speak up," Kadi explains. "When we went to the villages to develop our topics for the community schools, the women always sat in the back during the meetings. To find out their concerns we had to approach them alone after the meetings."
Some PTA meetings are held in the chief's hut, which women are not even allowed to enter. Kadi's apprehension arises, not because she doesn't believe in empowering women, but because SAGE has already admitted that there is not enough time to cover life skills from a gender perspective, in addition to other goals like female mentoring, girl-friendly classroom practices, female teacher support, and curricular revisions.
Although Kadi is grateful that foreign aid groups want to help improve Mali, she agrees that development should be more bilateral . "Even when I suggest an improvement or change to the plan, they still don't listen. I told them (the SAGE directors in Washington) that we shouldn't try to tackle the issue of women's empowerment in the little time we have. They didn't listen. They responded positively, 'Oh no, the women just don't know any better yet. When we teach them of their rights and train them as leaders, they will change.' Okay, this I'd like to see!" Kadi laughs.
"This is going to be a very challenging thing to change," says Kadi about the years of work ahead of her. But things are already beginning to evolve. At our community meetings, the girls that have started going to school sit right up front with the boys and are just as vocal as they are. After the model is tested, hopefully it will spread to public schools all over the country.
For more information on SAGE contact:
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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Making a Difference - The Struggle of Women Worldwide
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