What is a girl worth?

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 12-year-old Abigail Appetey is forced to miss her classes at primary school to sell fried fish door-to-door in Apimsu, her farming village in eastern Ghana. She gets up at 5am to buy the fish 5km away.

The little she earns won’t go on the exercise books she needs; her parents will spend it on her 20-year-old brother Joseph’s education. Abigail wants to be a teacher, she says, but is always tired in class.

There are 41-million girls around the world who should be in primary school all week, but aren’t, Britain’s Department for International Development says.
At least 20-million of them are, like Abigail, in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Ghana, 91% of boys, but only 79% of girls finish primary school. By the time they complete junior high school—for 12- to 15-year-olds—65% of boys and just 54% of girls are still in lessons, says the lobby group the Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition.

Here in Asesewa—one of Ghana’s poorest districts—Abigail’s nearest junior high school has just five girls out of 20 pupils in its most senior class. The school improvement plan is torn, written in felt tip and peeling from a wall in a corridor. It is the middle of the dry season and temperatures can reach 31°C, but the school’s tap is empty and the toilets don’t work. The most the school seems to have is a few exercise and textbooks that look as though they date back to the 1950s.

The average income for Asesewa’s population of 90 000 is between $17 and $21 a month, according to the international charity Plan, which has a base here.

Almost 80% of inhabitants farm maize and the starchy cassava plant. The work is done with machetes or by hand. Most families have no running water or electricity in their homes and almost half are illiterate.Living in poverty like this, girls stand little chance of being spared the time—or the money—for school.

Hidden costs
Ministers in the Ghanaian government abolished fees for primary education in 2005 and boast that they spend the equivalent of $9 in state funds on each primary pupil every year. But parents must pay for exercise books, school uniforms and exams.

It is these hidden costs—which can amount to more than $155 per child per year - that dissuade many from sending their girls to school, says Joseph Appiah, Plan’s chief fieldworker in Asesewa.

Besides, the value of an educated girl is lower than that of an educated boy. “The feeling is that girls will marry and belong to another family; boys bring back what they make to their parents,” Appiah says.

And, in these rural communities, girls are needed at home. From as young as seven they can be expected to prepare breakfast and lunch for their parents, take it to them in the fields and cook a hot dinner in the evenings. Many will also have to fetch water from several kilometres away and sell what they can to supplement their family’s meagre income. That leaves little time for lessons. “Here, it is only when a girl has extra determination to make it in her education that she will,” Appiah says.

And yet Ghana is prospering. The last five elections have been free and fair, making the country a darling of the donor community. The UK alone will give £250m this year to alleviate poverty here.

Economic growth has increased steadily for the last decade and the gross domestic product has almost doubled in that time. The discovery of 600-million barrels of oil in 2007 has given the country a new profile on the world stage. The International Monetary Fund has called Ghana “one of Africa’s frontier emerging markets”.

Not that you would know it in Asesewa.

MPs on the Ghanaian government’s education select committee reject the idea that their country’s new wealth is not being shared with its poorest districts.

Improvements come slowly to rural communities where the belief that girls should not go to school runs deep, they say. “A change of attitude depends on the parents,” says Mathias A Puozaa, chair of the select committee. A pilot project to distribute 1,5-million school uniforms to the neediest children is already under way, he adds.

Later, he concedes that “under-tree schools”, as those in deprived parts of the countryside are known, just “can’t match up to city schools because we don’t have the money to give them the same facilities”.

Catalyst of soccer
But what these under-tree schools can’t match in cash and facilities, they more than make up for in initiative. Word about the girls’ football club here in Asesewa has even reached the MPs in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Football is a passion for Ghanaians of both sexes and the club only allows girls who are at school or on vocational courses to play. Clever girls, who have dropped out of school through lack of funds, are awarded scholarships, funded by Plan, to return to class and allowed to join one of the 25 teams.

The standard of football is high. The games are taken seriously and hundreds come to watch the matches. Players use the opportunity of an audience to promote girls’ education from loudhailers. Others tour villages between matches to educate on the dangers of child neglect, the consequences of child labour and how to prevent teenage pregnancies.

“The football club motivates me,” says Margaret Ampomah (16) one of its strikers. Without her scholarship, Margaret, an orphan, would not be able to continue at school.

The club started only three years ago, but is already thought to have boosted girls’ school enrolments in some villages by 15%. It may have been just the catalyst needed to change attitudes—and to change them more quickly than the MPs expect.

At Akateng primary school and junior high, not far from Abigail’s village, boys and girls have just put on a play they have written about the shortsightedness of parents who deprive girls of school. Among those watching it were the real leaders of these rural communities—the “kings” and “queens”. These are highly respected elders who have been selected to preside over villages and keep their traditions going.

Sitting on a raised platform, with brightly patterned yellow fabric draped over one shoulder, Kwuke Ngua, one of the kings, tells how attitudes are changing. “We used to think women were not destined for education, but now we believe it does them well,” he says. “They have more skills, which they can bring to the community. All girls should go to school.” One of the queens, Mannye Narteki, goes even further: “Girls can no longer fit into working society unless they are educated,” she says.

A poster fixed to an acacia tree commands villagers to “send the girl child to school”. Another, by the market place, has pictures of three women—one a judge, one an engineer and one a nurse. “Stay in school and you could be one of these,” it reads.

Appiah says parents need to understand that if they make sacrifices now, and send their daughters to school, they will reap “higher returns in the future”. He is looking at ways to make those sacrifices less painful and considering a scheme whereby parents are given rice or specialist knowledge about their crops in return for allowing their girls to attend lessons.

Cecilia Ansah, a farmer and single mother, needs no bribe to send her daughter, Gifty, to school. The pair sleep on thin fabric next to a pile of cassavas and a bag of corn in their clay hut with its corrugated iron roof. “Farming is too difficult,” she says, to give 15-year-old Gifty much in life. “There is no work to do unless you are educated.”

Just one extra year of full-time primary school can boost a girl’s eventual wages by 10% to 20% in sub-Saharan Africa, charities say. An extra year of secondary school can make a difference of 25%.

Educated and empowered girls, like those on the football teams, are far more likely to get involved in community decision-making and drive progress of all kinds in their villages and beyond.

It may be too late to convince Abigail’s parents of this, but when she has daughters, she says, she’ll know that “both the boy and the girl should be at school”. - guardian.co.uk

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