She has been called the champion of girls’ education and has received several awards for this. Aïcha Bah Diallo is our guest of the week. The former education minister in Guinea fought for the education of young girls in her country. She has made a special effort to ensure that pregnant girls are not expelled from school during their pregnancy. A battle imitated elsewhere, far from Guinea. Unesco’s former Deputy Director-General for Education, Aïcha Bah Diallo, is interviewed by Reliou Koubakin. Maintenance…
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DW: Hello Madam Secretary, what trends do you see regarding the education of young girls in West Africa?
Aïcha Bah Diallo: Well, there has been a lot of progress, since Dakar in 2000, a lot of progress has been made. But according to the Unesco Institute of Statistics, although equality is almost reached in primary and a little bit in secondary, we still have 97 million children of primary or secondary school age who are still out of school. And among them are 51.7 million girls: that is in West and Central Africa. And so we still have a lot to do.
Sometimes girls are forced to drop out of school because they get pregnant and are expelled from school for that reason. Is the phenomenon marginal in West Africa?
Fortunately, that is about to change. There is still the impact of Covid-19. You know that the impact of Covid-19 has been terrible in African countries because schools have closed and we have seen that 128 million children in pre-primary and secondary education, for example, have been affected by the closing of classes.
It is nevertheless true that some countries, with the support of their partners, have put in place a strategy to ensure continuity of education for pupils by using radio, television or digital platforms and sometimes the distribution of pre-printed . But we know very well that for television there are families who do not have television, there is no continuous light.
It must be said that in West and Central Africa about 48% of students have not been able to take advantage of these educational opportunities. And so the pandemic has accentuated inequalities in access to education and learning. And it’s especially the girls who suffer from it. Because during the school closures many girls were married off. Some have been subjected to forced labor or even rape.
And you also know that there are conflicts that are also a very serious problem. Schools are currently closed in northern Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Conflicts therefore also act as a brake on the education of all children and girls in particular.
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You said this: “When I was in high school myself, I was shocked by the treatment of pregnant students who were kicked out of the establishment.” You told TV5 Monde that, for example, one of your classmates experienced this in second grade. And that made you say that if you were a preacher, it wouldn’t exist anymore. What have you done in Guinea in this direction?
Precisely. One of the reasons I fight against the exclusion of girls is because of this girl, this woman. Parents and education are responsible for this state of affairs. And so we have to accept that.
What have I done ? I ran campaigns. I started with my office. When I explained the real reasons to them, I said, “We have not done our duty. They have not been given any weapons, that is, no sex education. The parents don’t tell them anything about it.” So I say it’s not good. But I ran this campaign for two more years to make it clear to parents that girls should go back to school. But there’s something else, early marriages. Why am I fighting early marriage? Because it continues.
Are you proud today that pregnant girls are no longer sent back to Guinea?
You know, when I succeeded, I spoke to Fawe (Forum for African Women Educationalists) about it. That’s how Fawe got it. Today I can tell you that almost all African countries have adopted this policy, to integrate this into their education policy, the return of single mothers to school.
We realize, Madam Minister, that even if girls have access to school, there are still obstacles, such as girls not being able to access the toilets reserved for them. Especially if there is the menstruation that intervenes. Is this also a dimension that leaders in schools forget to take into account?
Yes. Not only should there be separate toilets, but there should also be an infirmary where young girls can get sanitary pads. That is why a listening center has to be set up. There must be a water point, there must be separate toilets. Otherwise young girls don’t go there. You know, guys tease a lot, they irritate.
How to improve the education of girls in general in West Africa and Central Africa you know better? Or maybe even to this question, what are the benefits of sending a girl to school?
Take my example: if I hadn’t been to school, I’d be milking the cows in the village. Women are the key to the development of a country.
Encourage all children to go to school and never accept girls standing on the side of the road. They have the same opportunities, the same rights. It is a matter of fundamental rights. I will fight for this all my life anyway.