Girls’ rights to education: African traditional and religious leaders commit to changing mindsets

How can religious and traditional leaders help unlock challenges and remove barriers to girls’ education?

September 26, 2019 by Rita Bissoonauth, African Union International Center for Girls and Women’s Education in Africa
4 minutes read
A young girl in class Saka primary school. Benin. Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
A young girl in class Saka primary school. Benin.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

Girls and young women’s access, retention and completion in schools is still of huge concern in Africa. The latest figures from UNESCO (2019) show that 52 million girls are not in school in Africa, while 4 million will never step into a classroom compared to 2 million boys.

Africa also has the highest rate of out of school children and adolescents globally However, girls remain more likely to be permanently excluded from education and at a higher risk of being left behind. This reality calls for redoubling efforts to ensure education is both of good quality and equitable.

Achieving the aspirations of Africa’s Agenda 2063 and Sustainable Development Goals requires closing the gender gaps in education. Only by partnership, coordination and identifying and working closely with key community stakeholders can significant progress be made for girls and women in Africa.

Since 2017, the African Union’s International Centre for Girls’ and Women’s Education in Africa (AU/CIEFFA), in line with the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16-25), is striving to involve traditional and religious leaders towards the empowerment of girls and women in and through education.

AU/CIEFFA’s believes that girls and women can play a key role in reshaping attitudes, social and cultural norms, and influence community behavior to promote girls’ access to quality education and retention in school. 

Religious and traditional leaders engage and influence families, communities, parliamentarians and decision-makers in communities. They are gatekeepers of certain traditions and norms that are drivers of gender inequality. However, they also have power and influence to help unlock challenges and remove barriers to girls and women’s education by bringing every other key decision-maker on board.

Religious leaders fight for girls’ right to education

Queen Mother Theresa Kachindamoto, paramount chief (called Inkosi) from the Dedza District in the central region of Malawi, is a prolific traditional leader. She is famously known in her country as the “child marriage terminator”.

She has prevented more than 500 child marriages in her district, showing her commitment to the well-being of girls’ and women.

Her interventions and working together with CSOs, teachers, mothers groups and other religious leaders, have saved hundreds of girls from HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, and enabled many girls to return to school.

As a custodian of our traditions and values, I believe that we have the responsibility of choosing what is good for children. Giving them the chance to go to school is one of the best things we can give them

Queen Mother Theresa Kachindamoto, paramount chief, Malawi

In Mauritania, Imam Abdallahi Sar encourages his community to educate girls in his mosque. He shared with AU-CIEFFA his core belief that it is impossible to conceive a better and prosperous future without African girls in school - more than half of the population comprises women and girls.

When you educate a girl, you are educating the whole society. Islamic teachings highlight that the quest for knowledge is important for both girls and boys.

Imam Abdallahi Sar, Mauritania

Engaging traditional and religious leaders for more impact

By bringing together religious and traditional leaders into a constructive dialogue, AU/CIEFFA seeks to contribute to sustainable solutions to girls accessing and staying in school, and to foster new pathways to gender equality.

The Second dialogue of the AU/CIEFFA with traditional and religious leaders on girls’ education in Africa held in Kampala, Uganda, in June 2019, was an opportunity for 35 traditional and religious leaders on the continent to reiterate their commitment to uphold girls’ and young women’s right to access education and to learn at all levels of educational systems.

A key outcome of the dialogue was a communiqué outlining key recommendations on the necessity to:

  • Redefine roles and responsibilities of faith-based organizations at community level in promoting acceleration of girls’ access to education and their retention in educational systems
  • Establish or consolidate existing platforms for traditional and religious leaders who champion girls' and women’s education in Africa with the facilitation of AU/CIEFFA
  • Share best practices on girls and women's education and empowerment with communities and implement innovative approaches and cultural transformation, in particular increase the completion rates of girls at all levels of education.

As a way forward, the African Union platform of the Council of Traditional Leaders in Africa (COTLA) was established as the ideal way to carry out advocacy and advance girls’ and women’s education across the continent.

The African Union and the Global Partnership for Education collaborate in strategic advocacy on education including the AU End Child Marriage Campaign, first ever High Level Heads of State Dialogue on Financing Education in Africapromoting pre-primary education at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, and youth blog series recognizing young education innovators in Africa. AU-CIEFFA, GPE and UNGEI have also collaborated on making education systems gender responsive through the Gender Responsive Education Sector Planning regional workshops.

GPE’s Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) seeks to get innovative solutions into the hands of policy makers. Gender Equality is one of the thematic areas to be funded by KIX.

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Traditional and religious leaders should not be seen just as those who prevent girls from going to school or stay at school! But they should be considered and involved as key stakeholders who can should be engaged to promote and respect the right to education for all children, especially girls and women.

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