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Girls in Africa quitting school over cost of living crisis says charity

Governments and donors need to redouble efforts to encourage girls back to school across Africa after the cost of living crisis pushed many to spurn education for low-paid work or early marriage, a charity has warned.

Camfed, which operates in five African countries, said its partnership model proved this could be achieved and called for a six-year plan to get 6 million girls into school.

The Covid-19 pandemic and rising food and energy costs over the past 18 months have prevented many children from attending school, limiting their chances of gaining a skilled job and an independent income. Camfed’s boss, Angeline Murimirwa, hopes to raise a proposed budget of $414m (£342m) to tackle this.

After three decades of educational support in Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe that has helped 1.8 million girls into secondary education, and 6.4 million boys and girls into primary and secondary schools, the charity wants to support 5 million more girls into secondary school by the end of 2029 while also helping women from earlier cohorts into work and leadership roles.

The charity said partnering with a network of 7,000 government schools had led to a sharp uplift in girls completing their education – a rate three times higher than girls in other schools – and an increase in girls’ self-esteem, with important delays in the age of marriage and first pregnancy.

Murimirwa, who was supported by Camfed during her education, said a high drop-out rate during the pandemic had been prevented in schools where the charity operated.

Speaking from Malawi, where 46% of girls are married before the age of 18, she said: “Over 90% of girls were able to re-enter education after Covid restrictions were lifted because we monitored them, stayed in touch and helped them return.”

Despite these efforts, in many countries only a small proportion of girls complete their secondary education. In Zambia, only 3% of girls complete the secondary school stage. Girls also face the prioritisation of marriage by their communities.

According to Unicef, 129 million girls around the world are out of school, including 32 million of primary school age, and 97 million of secondary school age.

Western governments and agencies such as the World Bank have recognised the huge direct and spin-off benefits of educating girls, not just in the five countries where Camfed operates.

Last weekend, the Business Design Centre in London hosted Festival of the Girl – a not-for-profit initiative that aims to inspire and engage girls between the ages of 7 and 11 – for an event that included workshops on careers in software coding and medicine, and sessions on body positivity.

This month in Goa, India, prizes were offered for digital images designed by schoolchildren as part of a campaign to enhance the standing of girls in Indian society. The local authority said it wanted to confront the trend for female foetuses to be aborted, a practice that has substantially lowered the number of women in the country.

Like their counterparts in developed economies, girls with a higher level of education in the developing world are more likely to participate in the formal labour market and earn higher incomes.

A 2018 World Bank study estimated that “limited educational opportunities for girls, and barriers to completing 12 years of education, cost countries between $15tn and $30tn in lost lifetime productivity and earnings”.

At the time, the organisation said: “It has become widely recognised that better-educated women tend to be more informed about nutrition and healthcare, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and their children are usually healthier, should they choose to become mothers.”

Murimirwa said more than 600,000 girls had received support from a programme funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), a longstanding partner and funder.

Andrew Mitchell, a minister at the FCDO, said he took pride in the achievements already made. “It is clear that girls’ education is the best way to eliminate poverty,” he said. “Camfed’s success over the last 30 years is proof of that and the journey of Angie Murimirwa to chief executive exemplifies it.

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