Female Education as a cultural challenge in contemporary Africa

According to available information, female education remains one of the weakest spots in the national life of most African countries. It is also the weakest link in the emancipation of women from backwardness and poverty. “The current challenges in African culture include the issue of female education, working in bars and restaurants, genital mutilation, self-dependence, the right to property and other rights that need understanding under the global cultural setup.” Women in Africa are still the victims of ignorance and illiteracy and remain marginalized, although tributes are regularly paid for their resilience and the patient acceptance of their fate.

According to other information, the place of women in African cultural settings had always remained one of marginalization and neglect although they have been playing decisive roles in the economic lives of the families. Their major role was confined to producing and reproducing children and bearing the brunt of raising them through backbreaking labor and daily suffering. This is mostly the fate of rural women whose lives have hardly improved while the responsibilities they carried within the family units have doubled and trebled.

“A proper woman in the African tradition has always been imagined within the context of the family; she is expected to accept marriage and have children because marriage is assumed to be the end goal for most African women. A proper woman puts the family interest before even her personal interest.” What is striking with the above-quoted passage is the absence or weak state of female education as legitimate and natural right women should enjoy in the context of their specific cultures. The media and “experts” on women’s issues often pay lip service to their cause and publish research findings that have hardly helped transform the destinies of the oppressed and exploited women in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.

Education in general and women’s education in particular is generally believed to be a panacea for their chronic distress and lack of hope in society. And yet, as verbal commitments were never backed up with practical efforts, their plights remain unaddressed and their conditions hardly improved. Female education is not given the importance it deserves in the cultural setting of African societies. As was the case for centuries, African women are only expected to marry and produce children as their primary role. This was written in the 21st century but reads as if it was written many centuries ago.

That is why the most pressing cultural issue in Africa today is the education of women. This right has been recently enshrined in the constitutions and other documents about the rights of women. Still, it has mostly been either partially or fully overlooked when it comes to the practical applications of the legal provisions that provide for women’s right to get proper education.

It is not difficult to realize the importance of women’s education in contemporary global or African contexts because it is increasingly considered to constitute the first and most important cultural issue that ensures the proper place women should occupy in their respective societies. As many statistics on female education in Africa testify, the situation in this particular area is not cause for satisfaction at all.

According to one of the statistical figures, “23% of girls are out of primary school compared to 19% of boys due to many factors, including poverty, child marriage, the responsibility of household chores, or sheer bias against further educating them. By the time they become adolescent, the exclusion rate for girls is 36% compared to 32% for boys.

The United Nations Educational; Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), institute for Statistics published a report comparing global literacy rates between males and females. for Sub-Saharan Africa in 2016, the adult literacy rate was 72% for males and 57% for females, whereas the youth literacy rate was 79% for males and 72% for females.”

Despite the challenges of female education in Africa, the situation is not altogether bleak as the figures show. Africa has made important advances in women’s education in the post-independence period by overcoming some of the cultural biases that impeded progress in this area. “In Africa, significant progress has been made regarding female to male ratio in educational institutes. The increase in sub-Saharan Africa has been the most prominent. As noted by UNESCO, in 2020, 66% of girls completed their primary education compared to 61% of boys in the sub-Saharan region of Africa.”

The same document has shown that the traditional barriers to women’s education still held sway in societies in addition to new challenges that emerged in the course of the last few decades. The challenges to female education in Africa are mainly climate change that, according to the same document, climate change has become a major factor contributing to the inaccessibility of quality education for women.”

The second factor is poverty and the gender gap. Poverty is mentioned as the single most formidable challenge girls face in Africa. In African families, where poverty is rampant, female education occupies the last priority, as most of them are obligated to work in the fields and in towns to earn a living for the family while early marriage pauses another formidable hurdle.

Cultural values have hardly changed in Africa in the post-independence period although the spread of education has significantly reduced their negative effects on female education as, “even literate women are likely to showcase their skills through employment due to restrictive cultural roles. These traditional values are a major obstacle to female education.”

Child marriage remains another obstacle to female education. “Fueled by gender inequality, poverty, and traditional values, child marriage is still prevalent in most regions of Africa. Niger, a country in west Africa has the highest rate of child marriage globally as 3 out of 4 girls in this region get married before they turn 18.”

The situation in Ethiopia is a bit different and much more promising if we go by the statistics on female education. The last 30 years have been particularly fruitful in promoting and reforming the national educational system that was long characterized by elitism, urban orientation, and rural neglect. Under the imperial system, female education was never given the attention it deserved. True, there were many initiatives taken to improve the state of education in the country. Education was recognized as being the engine of development at the national and individual levels. Yet, the reality on the ground was completely different and sometimes opposed to official proclamations and government rhetoric.

Education under the military government of the Derg had no doubt made important strides despite the repression that has sapped the very fabric of society and rendered education a luxury rather than a right to be enjoyed. As demoralization set in, and famine and pestilence made life worse than before, the encouraging start-up projects in education, such as the national literacy campaign and others vanished quickly for lack of resources, long-term commitment, and the absence of a feasible program and a vision that could guide it.

The EPRDF government has done better in revamping the education of the rural and urban population by introducing timely reforms and by carrying out a clear program of public education that focused on quantity rather than on quality of education that later on proved to be a long-term challenge without a clear or feasible solution. There was so to speak a massive drive for educational expansion with thousands of new schools built from the primary to college levels.

Millions of youngsters were sent to schools that accepted them despite shortages of teaching materials. Tens of thousands of teachers at all levels were trained and dispatched to rural and urban areas. Although the educational opportunities were not gender-based or gender-oriented, female students enjoyed or shared almost equal opportunities with their male counterparts. All this was unprecedented in the history of modern Ethiopian education.

“Ethiopia has made a reform on girls’ education with net primary enrollment rate from 51% in 2003-2004 to 95% in 2016/2017. Meanwhile, 53% only had completed primary school, 25% of secondary school, and 10% attended college.” As the above figures show, female enrolment at the primary levels was higher than at secondary levels and worse at college levels. As competition for jobs had become acute, only those at the college levels could find employment while those in the secondary and primary levels were left behind. As the job market became quickly saturated those who left school for various reasons and those who could not make it past the secondary level were left without any hope of continuing their studies or finding jobs. If we look at the figures, there was indeed impressive numerical growth in enrolment for both female and male students. Yet, the long-term consequences of such a hastily implemented massive educational program had serious shortcomings that canceled the initial gains. And in this process, female students were made victims more than their male counterparts as they joined the saturated labor market that did not cater to all of them.

The Chinese used to say that women carried half of the sky to highlight their decisive roles in society without which no nation could aspire to achieve political, social, and economic freedom. This statement becomes even more eloquent when we look at the multifaceted role women play in developing societies in general and in Africa in particular.

Talks about gender equality, gender empowerment, and gender equity abound in traditional as well as social media. Conferences are regularly held in almost all countries to improve the condition and status of women in various societies. Books are being written on the status, condition, and prospects for improving women’s position in rural and urban communities and boosting their role in political, economic, and social engagements.

Yet, at the end of the day, female education always remains unsatisfactory, particularly in rural areas where opportunities and prospects for improvement remain limited. In the years and decades to come, the ongoing educational reform program is believed to address these and other problems while the struggle for quality of education will remain the real and immediate challenge.



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