Sierra Leone Telegraph: 13 October 2016
Education, education, education – many commentators in Africa say is the panacea for ridding Africa of poverty, poor health, squalor, social inequality, and political marginalisation.
And for poorer countries like Sierra Leone, what is obvious is that after decades of massive under-funding and lack of cohesive strategy and poor leadership of the education sector, the country’s current social and economic woes can be attributed to its very low education standards and high level of illiteracy.
But if this assertion is fraught with political bias, what is certain is that poor education standards and outcomes are making Sierra Leone unattractive to investors and employers, that are looking to establish or grow their businesses.
With the increasing number of young children in Sierra Leone becoming ‘street kids’, entering crime and prostitution, as well as used as child labourers, there is concern that poor life’s chances at childhood will continue to push the country’s high level of illiteracy into a vicious cycle of abject poverty and early deaths.
On Tuesday, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) announced that it will be providing $6.7 million funding through UNICEF, to help about 200,000 girls across Sierra Leone, to improve their chances of transitioning and completing their secondary school education, where they are most vulnerable.
The project will last for 18 months and will be led by the country’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST), and implemented in collaboration with UNICEF and partners, although there are serious doubts the ministry has the leadership to make it work.
More than one million children under 18 years old and over 2 million adults aged 30 and under in Sierra Leone, are seriously at risk of early death or facing a life of immense uncertainty and abject poverty.
They are also highly susceptible to acute mental illness and substance abuse.
The project, known as ‘Girls Access to Education’ (GATE) was launched by DFID in partnership with the government in Freetown on Tuesday, 11 October, to mark the International Day of the Girl.
If successfully delivered, it will support more than nine-hundred Junior Secondary Schools to address the safety of girls from violence, support girls from disadvantaged households, and also help out-of-school girls back into education.
“School data shows there are roughly equal numbers of boys and girls in primary school, but transition rates are lower for girls from one level to the next at secondary level,” said Dr. Minkailu Bah, Minister of Education, Science and Technology.
“By tackling the issue from various fronts, we hope to reduce barriers such as school violence, poverty and low awareness on the importance of girls being in school.”
DFID says that a key strength of the project is the partnership with local NGOs. Communities will be helped to come up with their own solutions to support girls to stay in school. And boys and girls will be encouraged to become a positive influence on the school environment by supporting change.
“I am delighted that the UK people are supporting the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology in their work to enable adolescent girls to stay in school. Helping girls finish their education is vital for each girl herself. It is also critical for Sierra Leone, paving the way for women to play a full part in Sierra Leone’s development,” said Sally Taylor, Head of DFID Sierra Leone.
Project partner UNICEF also used the International Day of the Girl to highlight a new UNICEF global report which for the first time quantifies that challenge of household chores for girls – something that can be a factor in girls dropping out of school or performing poorly.
The report found that girls between 5 and 14 years old spend 40 per cent more time, or 160 million more hours a day, on unpaid household chores and collecting water and firewood compared to boys their age.
“The overburden of unpaid household work begins in early childhood and intensifies as girls reach adolescence,” said Geoff Wiffin, UNICEF Sierra Leone Representative.
“As a result, girls sacrifice important opportunities to learn, grow, and just enjoy their childhood. In the GATE project communities will be incentivized to support girls to stay in school, including through decreasing household chores. We hope this will help girls reach their full potential at school.”
The new project builds on the post-Ebola teenage pregnant girls’ education project, also implemented by MEST with support from DFID and UNICEF, which helped 14,000 girls continue their education, with many returning back into formal schooling.
The Sierra Leone Telegraph believes that while this initiative is to be welcomed, there is need to provide a sustainable career path leading to job skills training and employment for all of those children that will be completing the project, if the cycle of uncertainty and early deaths is to be broken in Sierra Leone.
A National Apprenticeship Training and Employment Programme should be established to provide opportunity for employment skills training and job placement opportunity, for the majority that will not go on to further and higher education.
But where are the job opportunities for these children in four to five years time, when they finish school and hopefully college? Where are the job opportunities for the parents, who are today struggling to provide one square meal for these poor children?
More importantly, where is the National Job Creation Plan and the Political and Business Leadership that will steer Sierra Leone from poverty in the next ten years?