Five questions to Harouna Balkissa Brah | Enabel - Belgian Development Agency

Sarraounia: relationship-based awareness-raising to keep 
girls in school

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Five questions to Harouna Balkissa Brah
Project Manager Sarraounia


In what context is the Sarraounia Project taking place ?

Schooling for girls in Niger is not ideal, especially in the rural areas. The main challenge is to make education inclusive, particularly in secondary education, where gender inequalities between boys and girls continue to exist, both in access to and completion of studies. In 2015, the percentage in full-time education in the first four years of secondary school was 30 % for girls compared to 40 % for boys. The same year, the rate of completion of the first four years was 16 % among girls and 22 % among boys.

Many factors are involved in girls dropping out of school. The school environment is characterised by a lack of facilities and equipment. In most rural schools, pupils sit on the floor and there are no toilets. Moreover, social norms often prioritise the marriage of girls over educational success. Finally, one factor that is seldom spoken of is linked to the deterioration in the quality of the education system. Many girls have the motivation, they want to succeed in their studies, but most of them risk being excluded from the system due to their poor results. When a girl is excluded, the only alternative that remains open to her is marriage.

The development by the Nigerien government of a strategy to accelerate schooling for girls represents a real step forward: there is, at least, an official acknowledgement of the need to combat the gender stereotypes rooted in a highly patriarchal Nigerien society. In such a context, we couldn’t have been more justified in trying out a new methodological approach to reduce educational inequalities between girls and boys in rural communities. 
How can parents be persuaded of the benefit of sending their daughters to school ?

The strongest resistance to social change is apparent mainly in the private sphere, within the families themselves. In order to win the trust of communities and form a special relationship with parents of pupils, we have prioritised a local follow-up. We work with local NGOs who assigned a (female) coordinator to each village involved in the intervention. They go there once a fortnight and hold discussion sessions with the mothers, fathers, teachers, girls and boys.

As far as the awareness-raising tools are concerned, we do not restrict ourselves to inclusive dialogues within the communities. We also favour innovative practices to increase awareness. Rural communities appreciate concrete actions. It is therefore important to demonstrate to them the tangible benefits of school education. 

That is why in September 2017, we organised a study trip to Benin for the best pupils from the schools involved in our intervention. Those girls, who excel in their studies, represent an exception. Offering them this reward is something completely new and unimaginable in the rural environment. This type of initiative is more likely to attract interest from the parents, who are still hesitant about schooling for girls. 
“We created a circle of communication for social change at local level. Every individual now has the opportunity to be a link in a chain of awareness raising among citizens to encourage a school education for girls. “
In what way is the working method of the Sarraounia project innovative ? 

Until now, projects to promote school education for girls in Niger have taken a technocratic view of gender inequalities, which makes it more difficult for local agents to take on such a concept. That’s why we tried out a new, more pragmatic methodological approach to tackle the often obvious denial of the very problems of educational inequalities. We call our approach: relationship-based awareness-raising.”

For a pilot intervention like the Sarraounia project, innovation is a strategic priority. The real issue of this experimentation is twofold. On the one hand, making the local agents aware that the school education of girls is a real social problem to which local solutions have to be found that are appropriate to their own situations. On the other hand, motivating local agents to get involved voluntarily themselves in the efforts for a collective plea in favour of this desirable social transformation.

To that end, we have put innovative activities in place in Niger, such as participative theatre sessions on sensitive themes such as the burden of household chores or child marriage. We have also begun organising awareness days. These are three-day immersion visits that we make to each community, during which recreational, sports or cultural activities are organised.

The Sarraounia project has, for example, set up a school exchange between 4th-year secondary school pupils from the rural school of Tombo Kasso and from a private school in Niamey. Beyond the ties formed between pupils from different social classes, these days have enabled the girl pupils, who have begun learning how to play handball this year, to play a match with the pupils from the capital.

Through this method we have helped create a virtuous circle of communication for social change at local level. From now on, every individual has the opportunity to be, voluntarily, a link in a chain of raising awareness among citizens of providing a school education for girls. This methodology is consistent with one of the key principles of the Belgian development cooperation, namely supporting local dynamics in interventions that prioritise endogenous approaches to development.
Which people are the links in this awareness raising chain among citizens ?

The project highlights positive models, they are pioneering families who have, very early on, demonstrated their commitment to the schooling of girls, both in their own homes and in the public sphere. Despite strong social pressure, these exceptional families, who are, in the minority in their social environments, place greater value on girls attending school than on child marriage. Their example can motivate other members of the community who are reluctant to change their attitude or behaviour. 

In this respect, it is crucial to identify and improve the standing of progressive leaders, the individuals with most influence and respect within the communities, such as religious leaders or traditional leaders. For example, in the context of the first Sarraounia competition, an imam was awarded the prize for religious leader most committed to schooling for girls, after he handed over the dowry of his daughter, who was accepted for the General Certificate of Secondary Education, to enable her to continue her studies at upper secondary school. . 
What is the Girls Not Brides platform and the Global Meeting organised by it ?

The “Girls Not Brides” platform is a global partnership of organisations determined to put an end to child marriage worldwide. The Sarraounia project became a member of the platform in 2017.

An international gathering is being held in June 2018 in Malaysia. Our participation represents an opportunity for networking, exchanging experiences and good practices with member organisations coming from other countries or regions experiencing similar situations to those of Niger. Nigeria, for example, is also under attack from religious associations resistant to change in social norms in favour of child marriage.

For a project like Sarraounia, which is in the process of trying out innovative approaches, this is also undoubtedly an opportunity to raise the profile of the intervention internationally.  

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