Abidjan, early 60’s, the young Dicoh Mariam Konan starts studying chemistry at the Technical High School. She soon became the first female chemist in the Ivory Coast. Her portrait on the 25fcfa coins, still in circulation today, illustrates the impact of her career. It symbolizes a West Africa in progress, with educated women, while the period of independence is in full swing. 60 years later, this progress is slowing down, only 8% of Ivorian women continue secondary studies. A figure that applies to the rest of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. How to explain this situation?
Over the years, sub-Saharan women have found many socio-economic barriers to pursuing higher education. These include gender stereotypes and women’s place in society, a clear preference for boys’ education over girls, and poverty. Indeed, the cost of higher education generally falls more heavily on poor households than on rich ones.
Yet, studies show that women play a key role in the continent’s economy. According to UNESCO, the impact of girls’ education on national economic growth is undeniable: a one percentage point increase in girls’ education increases the average gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 percentage points and increases the annual growth rate of GDP by 0.2 percentage points.
These figures raise many questions:
- What mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure sustainable access to higher education for girls?
- How can we influence deep-rooted societal practices?
A look at 3 mechanisms set up by I&P Education and Employment, aimed at increasing the number of young girls enrolled in higher education institutions to enable them to find their place in the job market.
Overcoming the socio-economic barrier
At ISM Ziguinchor, 11:00 a.m., Elise, originally from the Sédhiou region of Senegal, is taking a management course. After having interrupted her schooling due to pregnancy, she received a scholarship for excellence from ISM Ziguinchor. The first institution of higher education in the capital of Casamance, the establishment is a fine example of parity, in fact, girls represent 55% of the staff.
The policy is clear: “When awarding scholarships, 60% of girls and 40% of boys. For equal competence, the choice is made for girls,” says Georges Bernard Ndèye, director of the school. When asked why girls, the answer is simple: “The desire to get girls out of their vulnerable situation.
Higher education has an additional cost for families living in rural areas or without a university who have to go to capital or secondary cities. For families this means additional costs such as transportation, accommodation, and food. In Ghana, for example, among the poorest households, sending a young person to a higher education institution increases their non-food expenses by 37%, an unthinkable sacrifice for many.
Sending a student to college increases a poor household’s non-food expenditures by 37 percent in Ghana
Students and their families analyze the benefits of higher education versus the income if the young person worked right after high school. For Priska Manga, a doctor at Cheikh Anta Diop University, the first obstacle for girls is the family. Social norms (role of men and women in the family, marriage, maternity, etc.) also play a role. A Wolof proverb says “Diangou Djiguène amoul ndieurigne”, a woman’s studies are of no use. Investing in the higher education of young girls can be seen as a waste of time and investment for the most vulnerable families.
Parental education is a critical factor in decision making. When the head of the household has completed secondary school, children are 10 times more likely to pursue higher education than a child in a household with a lower educational level of the head. Thus, convincing vulnerable families of the importance of higher education for girls is necessary. But it is essential to couple this societal change with financial support mechanisms. The granting of a scholarship may be a condition for a young girl from a disadvantaged background to pursue higher education.
Local and adapted infrastructures
In 2016, ISM Ziguinchor, wishing to respond to the accommodation problems of its students, decided to create a branch in Kolda, a city located 500km from Dakar. At the beginning of the school year, the administration realized that the majority of the students were married girls, whose families did not want them to move away for their studies. Families want to keep their daughters within a family circle, to protect them, but also to avoid any incidents that would damage their reputations (unwanted pregnancies, etc.). Bringing the institution closer to female students in rural areas increases their access to quality higher education when social norms prevent them from going to the city alone. For student mothers, the provision of childcare facilities at the place of learning helps them stay in school. To help female learners focus on their education, UNICEF has set up a daycare system as part of the “Girl Power” project in Côte d’Ivoire. The project aims to strengthen the entrepreneurial skills of young girls in the suburbs.
- Dormitories: when school becomes home
Families also use tutoring systems. The student (girl or boy) is placed under the authority of a tutor, usually a family acquaintance. When necessary, or when there are difficulties within the host family, the girls drop out of school. Another solution is to make the school the place to live. The construction of dormitories in schools allows families to find a reliable solution to the issue of distance from the place of learning. This solution is being tested in ESSECT Poincaré schools. Located in the city of Bouaké in Côte d’Ivoire, the school welcomes students from all over the region – mainly agricultural – and beyond.
- The importance of decent and adequate health facilities
In addition to having a decent toilet, it is also a question of equipment adapted to female physiology and available in the sanitary facilities.
Once they enter the school, students spend a large part of their day there. In addition to the availability of facilities, it is important that they feel comfortable. Both private and public, restrooms are places that must meet the requirements of safety, hygiene and privacy. Since joining the IP2E program, Mr. Ndèye considers that decent sanitary facilities are fundamental for the development of young girls. During their menstruation, girls need to have access to toilets with water, soap and garbage garbage cans where they can dispose of their sanitary protection. The availability of these pads is also necessary. In addition to having decent toilets, it is also a matter of having appropriate facilities available in these spaces. When interviewed, girls express an interest in separate toilets. They often emphasize the criteria of hygiene and the desire for privacy and safety.
- Ensure the protection and well-being of students
Providing a safe learning environment goes beyond infrastructure. Gender-based and sexual violence affects girls more than boys. It is present during higher education, but goes unreported. It can include harassment between students, harassment between professors and students, and the exchange of good grades or job offers for sexual favors. Within the IP2E program, all supported companies develop a “student safeguarding” policy. This policy aims to prevent and respond to different types of incidents (sexual violence, physical safety, etc.) and to increase awareness of these issues among students and staff. Institutions are developing mechanisms for reporting and handling complaints. These mechanisms help build trust and improve the learning experience of young girls.
Inspiring Role Models
At the Institut Ivoirien de Technologie (IIT), along with business and computer courses, students receive leadership and personal development courses. Prisca and Grâce, two second-year students, explain that these courses help “to know oneself, to find one’s strengths to overcome one’s weaknesses. They often discuss the girls’ development with their male classmates. For Grace, one of the reasons for not pursuing higher education is the lack of self-confidence in girls. This lack of confidence stems from the “low esteem” that those around them place on the education of young women.
Gender stereotypes are also found in the orientation. The so-called promising fields, such as science, are often assigned to boys. Fabricia Devignes, a gender expert at UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning, explains that “the representation of women has an impact on girls’ education and learning outcomes.
In the companies of the I&P Education and Employment program, one institution makes the difference in the sciences: the USSD (Université des Sciences de la Santé de Dakar ). The Board of Directors of the USSD is chaired by a woman. In the university, 60% of the students are young women. When questioned, the female students explain that most of them come from families where their parents are already working in the health sector. To strengthen the resolve of these future doctors, USSD is also implementing a women’s leadership program. These are mentoring sessions during which women in the health sector will lead exchange sessions with the students. For Professor Ndir, it is by taking the example of female role models that there will be women leaders in the field.
In Tamale, northern Ghana, educational company Openlabs is bringing role models into the local community to change attitudes. To train girls in computer skills, Prince Charles, campus manager, and his team conduct outreach to girls as young as primary school, families, women’s groups, and religious leaders. To facilitate the exchange, some team members come from the targeted communities. Zeinab, a student from the Choggu community, spoke. She explains that it is possible to be a young woman, belong to the community and pursue higher education. Prince Charles went on to explain the financial benefits that the education of young women will have on these communities. He also explains the scholarships and discounts that Openlabs offers to young women.
In recent years, the historical gap in access to secondary education between girls and boys on the African continent has narrowed considerably and is now being reversed thanks to government efforts (in Senegal, in 2021: 52% of girls versus 48% of boys). This quasi-parity has highlighted a non-generic inequality, but rather a strong disparity according to the social and geographical origin of future students, and partly explains the low rate of continuation of higher education. Although few girls and boys pursue higher education in sub-Saharan Africa, girls from disadvantaged or rural backgrounds are at the bottom of the pyramid in terms of access to university.
Guaranteeing sustainable access to education for vulnerable girls requires providing mechanisms for financing higher education. For girls in rural areas, the multiplication of community-based higher education offers is also a lever to be implemented. The institutions must be safe places, where the well-being, safety and health of the students will be preserved. Finally, it is necessary to change mentalities, especially regarding the place of girls in scientific fields, in order to ensure that women fully participate in the development of the continent.
“The emancipation of women goes through education. If we manage to have more educated women, we will have women leaders everywhere.”
According to Dr. Priska Manga, “The emancipation of women is through education. If we can have more educated women, we will have women leaders everywhere. Disadvantaged girls need continued access to quality education in order to become self-sufficient and active in the development of their region. Quality higher education develops and strengthens the skills needed to enter a highly competitive labor market, and enables them to claim a decent, adequate and equal income to improve their quality of life.
 Darvas, Peter, Shang Gao, Yijun Shen et Bilal Bawany. 2017. Enseignement supérieur et équité en Afrique subsaharienne : Élargir l’opportunité au-delà de l’élite. Directions du développement. Washington, DC : Banque mondiale. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-1266-8.
Darvas & all
 UNICEF. Projet Girl Power. 2020. https://team.unicef.fr/projects/unicef-projet-girl-power
 Marion Simon-Rainaud. 2021. Mélanger les filles et les garçons a facilité l’accès aux toilettes », 7 mars 2021 ? https://usbeketrica.com/fr/melanger-les-filles-et-les-garcons-a-facilite-l-acces-aux-toilettes
 GPE. 2018. Comment les toilettes peuvent-elles contribuer à promouvoir l’éducation.
 BBC News Africa. 2019. ‘Sex for geades’: Undercover in West African universities. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-49907376
 C. Manse. 2020. Education des filles, émancipation des femmes. https://www.entreprenanteafrique.com/education-des-filles-emancipation-des-femmes/