Aichetou, 14, moved to Tarhil–a neighborhood in the outskirts of Mauritania's capital Nouakchott–with her family when she was seven and just starting primary school.
"When we lived in Arafat I had a very good life. The environment was good, I had lots of friends who lived nearby, I had everything. The only thing missing was a school. I was not in school yet, but my brothers and sisters were. It was very far away."
The government of Mauritania has made significant progress in recent years in primary schooling access and completion. Between 2000-2001 and 2012-2013, the gross enrollment rates increased from 88% to 97%. The primary completion rates also rose from 53% in 2002 to 71% in 2013.
However, transition to lower-secondary school remains a challenge, especially for girls.
In 2013, only 55% of girls moved on from primary school to lower-secondary compared to 61% of boys.
“Secondary schools are typically located in district towns, not in villages,” says Sid’ahmed Ould Baba, Director of the Directorate of Education Training Projects. He explains that many children live too far away to travel to and from school every day, and parents can’t just leave their farms and move to cities for the sake of their children’s education. And while parents are likely to feel comfortable sending their adolescent sons to live with a friend or relative who lives near the school, they are far less likely to agree to similar arrangements for their daughters.
Both of Aichetou's older sisters went to primary school when they lived in Arafat. Neither continued on to lower secondary school.
To address this issue the government, with the support of GPE, has been building more proximity schools in areas with large populations where children, especially girls, have not been transitioning to lower secondary school.
Aichetou is now enrolled in one of the proximity schools as a grade 8 student.
She has to walk 1.5 kilometers to school. It is a difficult walk through the sand, and when she first moved to Tarhil, there were only a few families and homes and she felt afraid. Now, the area has filled up with people and houses and she is no longer scared.
Sometimes, she is joined by a friend:
"When I walk with my friends we don't feel the distance, but it slows us down and I’m afraid we might arrive late to school because we talk about what's up, what's new, the news — and I have friends who ask a lot of questions.”
Aichetou always sits in the front row and participates in class. She is one of the top students in her class, and her teachers all like her.
"I want to be a teacher of religious studies because religion is very important in my society. It sets the rules for communities and helps society know the difference between good and evil. A lot of people don't understand this and I want to teach them."
Having a school to go to that is close to home makes Aichetou one of the lucky ones in Mauritania, but her situation is not without challenges. Her school doesn’t have enough teachers which means that she and her peers will not be adequately prepared to sit their exams at the end of the year.
Mohamed Ould Khalili, an administrator at the teachers’ college in Nouakchott explains, “The lack of teachers is an issue in the areas where we have new schools and there are a lot of students. It’s a problem of shifting demographics and the movement of people. In general it tends to be solved, it just takes time.”
The teachers at the school are under-resourced and don’t have textbooks. In Aichetou’s words:
“On the lack of books I have three things to say. First, schools should have textbooks. It is easier to learn when you can listen to the teacher and then go and read about what you learned in a textbook. Second, teachers should have a variety of textbooks, not just one, because that is boring. Third, we have research to do and we don’t have reference books with which to do it, so this is a big problem for us.”
College Riyad 5 is also missing water, an issue which disproportionately affects girls who often have to leave school and ask people in neighboring homes to use their restrooms. Only one tanker truck delivers water to all the sites in the Tarhil area, making lack of water an issue for the area as a whole.
Since 2014, GPE has partnered with to government of Mauritania and other education partners to promote equitable access to lower secondary education for girls by building “proximity schools” across Mauritania. GPE has built 13 proximity schools in six of the country’s most vulnerable regions, thereby facilitating the enrollment of more than 21,168 girls in lower secondary education (2016)— almost three times the number that were enrolled in these regions in 2014. Since 2004, Mauritania has received a total of US$35.5 million in GPE grants.
It is also thanks to these investments that Aichetou is still in school. Making sure distance doesn’t act as a barrier between a girl and her education is why GPE works with countries to make their education systems inclusive and equitable.