We’re experiencing something new in this project with our population of participants – lots of girls! We try to have equal numbers of male and female participants, but in all of our previous projects we’ve struggled to keep as many girls as boys through to the completion of the murals. This time however, the girls are outnumbering the boys in both of our groups. On first appearance this seems like it could only be a wonderful thing – in a culture where women’s rights are severely limited, we want the girls to have as many opportunities for learning as possible. And it is, without a doubt, wonderful to have so many girls in the program for this reason. But behind this first appearance lurks the sad fact that the reason we have struggled to find enough boys to attend is because most of them are in school, but many girls are not.
This is a result of a combination of several factors: cultural norms that don’t value formal education for boys or girls, but especially girls; the fact that school in the camp is only provided for grades one through six; and restrictive gender norms that don’t give females the same freedoms that males are given. One of our participants, Feedy, told us the thing that she misses most about Mali is going to school. She has already completed elementary school so her only option for continuing here would be to enroll in the secondary school in the nearby town of Dori, but her father will not allow her to do this.
Let me throw some statistics at you: Quoting from the Social Institutions and Gender Index website (http://genderindex.org/country/mali), “Mali is ranked 86 out of 86 in the 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index and the country’s Gender Inequality Index is 0.712, placing it at 143 out of 146 countries. Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data from 2006 indicates that 52.6% of girls aged between 15 and 19 years were married, divorced or widowed, and according to survey data from 2001, of girls aged 15-19 who were already married, 19.4% had been married before they turned 15. There have even been some reported cases of girls as young as nine being married.” This is clearly an environment that would not support the education of girls.
According to one of the community leaders, the Toureg people in Mali only started sending their children to school in the 1980’s. (Touregs make up 93% of the camp’s population.) “Before that,” he said, “they only knew cows and war.” Another community member told me that many children go to school when they want and stay home when they want, and their parents don’t care either way. School is a relatively new concept among this population and many parents don’t see the value of it and therefore don’t encourage their children to go. It is encouraging though that the leaders of Goudoubo have chosen education as one of the themes for their murals, showing that education does have many advocates among the leadership. I hope that over time, more and more parents will come to understand how important education is for their children, boys and girls, and that an education will become a invaluable asset in their culture. In the meantime, we’re happy to be able to provide this opportunity to Feedy and other youth like her who have no other opportunities in the camp, and we hope that it encourages them to seek out more opportunities for learning in the future.