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To Anyone Who Doubts Girls’ Place in School: ‘Batonga!’
(Studies show education protects health, improves earnings potential)

By Phuong Ly
Special Correspondent

Washington — When puberty hits adolescents in poor countries, girls start disappearing from classrooms.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always bother adults as much as it should. While access to primary schools has dramatically improved throughout the developing world in recent decades, secondary education for females too often has been seen as an unnecessary privilege. Attendance prevents teenage girls from providing labor for their families or getting married and bringing in a dowry.

But recently, the education of adolescent girls has become a higher priority for governments and nonprofit groups. Two particular organizations illustrate the priority shift well.

In five African countries, the Batonga Foundation pays for tuition, supplies and tutoring for girls attending school. Batonga was started in 2006 by Benin native and New York resident Angelique Kidjo to help girls stay in school.

Kidjo, a successful singer and UNICEF ambassador, recalls that, as a youngster in Benin, she was taunted for being a girl in school. To cope, she made up the word “batonga” to describe the empowerment education gave her. The word became the title of her hit song telling an African girl to “do as you please regardless of what anyone tells you.” After recording the song, Kidjo used the word to name her foundation, which helps girls succeed in secondary school.

Nearly 84 percent of children worldwide attend primary school, compared to just 60 percent of children attending secondary school, according to a 2006 report by the Academy for Educational Development. Most of those missing are girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 17 percent of girls enroll in secondary school.

In one country, Ethiopia, a United Nations Foundation program gives families a $25 goat or sheep if they keep their teen girls in school and unmarried for at least two years.

Keeping or re-enrolling teen girls in school is challenging, but crucial to improving social and economic conditions, said Cynthia Lloyd, author of a forthcoming report, “New Lessons: The Power of Educating Adolescent Girls,” sponsored by the Population Council. The more educated a girl is, the more likely she is to delay marriage, have better health, engage in civic activities and earn more money. “Essentially, education helps protect and transform girls in a critical phase of life,” Lloyd said.

So far, more than 500 girls in Benin, Mali, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Cameroon have received Batonga Foundation scholarships. In 2008, the second full year of the program, 95 percent of the girls returned to class, according to the foundation.

In Benin and Mali, Batonga helps girls whose earlier school education had been funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and administered by World Education. Previously, all financial support had stopped after fifth grade.

The cost of educating a girl in these countries is relatively low by Western standards. Batonga pays from $75 to $300 per year per girl for uniforms, school fees, transportation and supplies, depending on the country. But for many African families, the cost is prohibitive, said Stephanie Shearer Cate, the program’s director.

The burden isn’t just measured in tuition; it’s also the labor that is lost when a girl is in class. In addition, secondary schools are few and far between, so students have to travel long distances. When families are able or willing to make such sacrifices for education, it’s usually for a boy, rather than a girl, who is expected to eventually get married and join her husband’s family.

Once those barriers are lifted, “parents see that and say, ‘Oh, I’m proud of my child getting an education,’” Cate said. “If [those children] grow up and send their own child to school, that’ll have a ripple effect.”

Even one extra year of schooling beyond the average makes a difference, according to various World Bank studies. The eventual wages of girls may rise an extra 10 percent to 20 percent and thereby help raise their countries’ overall per capita income.

In Ethiopia, education reduces child marriage rates. Child marriage rates in the Amhara region, in the northwest part of the country, are among the highest in the world, with 19 percent of girls married by age 15.

But a five-year program started in 2005 by the U.N. Foundation’s Girl Fund in partnership with the Ethiopian government and Nike Foundation provides mentors, financial support for school, and informal workshops on topics such as HIV/AIDS and sexual abuse. This is the program that awards a goat or sheep to families with successful girl students. In its first “graduation ceremony,” about 750 girls who delayed marriage and stayed in school received an animal, which helps their families’ standard of living.

The program also helps girls who have fled to cities to escape forced early marriages. Mentors go door to door in Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region, and in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to recruit the girls, many of whom work as housekeepers. For a few hours each week, the girls receive counseling and formal classes on farming and marketing. The United Nations estimates that 11,000 girls have been reached by the program. Some have attended one workshop; some have stayed in school for two years.

With such successes, perhaps the sight of a teen girl in class won’t be so unusual anymore, said Tamara Kreinin, director of the Girl Fund. It will be an accepted norm.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site:
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