Saturday, December 27, 2008

Girls' education

Hadiza's primary school

As for my role as her sponsor PCV, I will visit Hadiza at least monthly, help arrange a tutor, bring her a stipend each month, and start a journal/semi-biography with her. I am so curious to know her and to know what she thinks and feels and needs...I think it may take months before she will be comfortable being totally open with me. Now she treats me like quite an authority figure and probably would say whatever she thinks I want to hear.

I know, I know, education is one of the first steps to self liberation, development, women's rights; I'm not about to make a case against educating anyone: knowledge is power. But consider and recognize that the process, the logistics, even, of becoming educated in this country, especially for a female, are very very formidable. Hadiza has to leave home, alone; she's the only girl to do so; all of her girlfriends will stay in the village and continue their lives as usual. She has to adjust to a new village, family, and school. She'd have to be pretty enlightened already to be content with this situation: who at 13 is happy to leave their peer group? So there is that. Then consider the Nigerien school system: a French system, with all courses taught in French (not the language used in homes or anywhere else in the villages), where memorization and recitation are all you do, and critical/independent thinking and creativity aren't fostered. Corporal punishment is the primary form of discipline, not just for misbehavior, but also as a means of academic correction.

Now consider the long term social implications for an educated female in this country, where most women marry as girls, at age 16-18. Hadiza, if she succeeds amidst the challenges mentioned above, will have to face the stigma that educated women are less desirable as wives--the assumption being that they are too independent (willful and also financially independent), too strong-minded/stubborn/assertive, and too old to marry: all unattractive qualities to many Nigerien men.

Even as there are national campaigns to promote girls' education, there is not a "place," a culturally and socially appropriate, desirable place, for educated adult women. That takes time. An educated, open-minded Nigerien male friend of mine told me that in a recent TV campaign for girls' ed, several female "role models" were presented as examples of what you can become if you, too, go to school:
1. A pop singer (who dresses like a westerner, and therefore looks totally unpresentable and slutty.)
2. A teacher (unmarried, living at home with parents)
3. A woman with a high-powered government job (divorced, living at home with her parents)
So, as much as the ad was supposed to show "successful" educated women, it actually just reinforced the stereotype that educated women are unmarriageable, inappropriate, burdensome drains on their parents. So. In Niger, marriage is a huge rite of passage, celebrated as much or more as any holiday, and 1/2 of the ultimate achievement a woman can possibly make: having lots of babies.

I think maybe I've made my point...just that getting girls in school is tough, keeping them there is tough, and showing them that it is going to improve their lives is tough--and in the view of many, not even true.

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