Suwaiba Yunusa, 29, is the only female teacher at Janbulo Islamiyya Primary School located in Roni, Jigawa State, in Nigeria.
“You could talk to her, but she has already gone home today,” says Headmaster Shaaibu Hassan. He adds: “There aren’t many female teachers in the state so we are fortunate to have even one.”
The many benefits of female teachers
Talking with Shaaibu and the rest of the teachers who have crowded into his office, it becomes obvious that, as the only female member of staff, Suwaiba is far more than just another teacher:
“When they know there is a female teacher in the school, parents are easily convinced to send their girls to school,” says one teacher.
“When the girls see her coming sometimes they start chanting her name. I think it’s because they are so happy to see someone who is like them,” says another.
“The girls feel much freer with a woman teacher. They talk so much more openly in class,” says a third.
“And they need someone they can talk to about any issues they are facing,” Shaaibu adds.
More girls come to school if their teacher is a woman
When she comes to school the next day, Suwaiba herself adds to the list of benefits a female teacher brings to a school, especially as girls grow up and enter puberty: “In our culture, it is inappropriate for male teachers to help the older girls one on one; they are also limited in their ability to discipline the older girls. But a female teacher—like a mother—can discipline a child of any gender and any age.”
And of course, she is on hand to deal with the expected challenges that come up around older girls and menstruation that her male colleagues only laughed nervously about when asked the previous day.
But Suwaiba recognizes that perhaps her most important function is as a role model:
“Growing up I had two women teachers. I remember thinking I wanted to be like them. Now I am. So I know how important it is when the girls come up to me and say, ‘When I grow up I want to be a teacher like you.’”
Girls face many barriers to education
Nigeria is home to 20% of the world’s out of school children, and in Northern Nigerian states like Jigawa, the majority of out-of-school children are girls.
The literature confirms what Suwaiba and her male colleagues know from experience: increasing the number of female teachers is one way to get more girls into school, and to keep them there.
This is especially true in parts of the world where cultural barriers make it difficult to send girls to school. And in this context, girls who report having positive female role models in school are more likely to stay in school.
In Nigeria, there are too few female teachers
In Nigeria, the US$100 million GPE grant works to expand access to basic education for female students, and promote gender equality. But keeping female teachers in the schools that need them can prove another matter.
“Last year, I was so happy,” says Suwaiba. “There were two other female teachers assigned to this school. We would work together to do exercises with the children.
We would meet between classes and talk about whatever problems we faced in the classroom.
“This year, because there are so few female teachers around, they were transferred to other schools. Now, honestly, I don’t enjoy coming to school anymore. I feel so lonely and isolated. The male teachers all sit together and talk in the shade. Culturally, there is no way I can sit and talk with them. And there is no staff room where I can go and sit. So between classes I just wander here and there by myself with no one to talk to. I am thinking about leaving. I told the headmaster that if they can’t bring in another female teacher soon, I want to transfer to another school.
A portion of GPE’s grant is being used to increase the number of qualified female teachers by providing scholarships to approximately 11,000 female teachers to upgrade their qualifications and encourage them to stay in schools.
“I keep thinking about the future. I know that someday, as more and more girls go to school and complete their education, there will be more of us. I can’t wait for that day to come.”