Seen and Heard: Against All Odds, Gender and Education in the Developing World

James Nelson

As a group of private, international, and non-denominational agencies, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is one of the world’s largest private development agencies.  The AKDN works without regard to faith, origin, or gender to improve living conditions and opportunities for people living in some of the poorest parts of the developing world through three main branches: economic development, social development, and culture.   One of its four core focus areas is education, from pre-primary up to university and adult vocational services; a cross-cutting theme of the AKDN’s work is gender.  It is for these reasons that two speakers from the AKDN were invited to take part in the 2012 University Seminar Series, held at the Munk School of Global Affairs and sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation Canada and the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

The first speaker, Dr. Jane Rarieya, is an Associate Professor and the Head of Teaching Programmes at Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development in Tanzania. She provided an overview of her research project which took place in four counties in Kenya: Ndhiwa, Kajiado, Murang’a, and Nairobi.  For the past 11 years, the Kenyan government has instituted legislation that, at least in part, address girls’ education; most recently, keeping girls in school has become government policy and has entered into the national budget.

While the Kenyan government recognizes the importance of girls’ education, Dr. Rarieya outlined four main factors that continue to keep girls out of school.  First is geographic issues, including the distance it takes to walk to and from school.  Second is the school and schooling practices, including the fact that many of the schools do not have enough latrines, books, or desks.  Third is health related issues, including having to care for family members who are living with HIV/AIDS and/or other illnesses and that many girls do not attend school when they are menstruating.  Fourth is the status of the girls’ families, such as having illiterate parents or living in conditions of poverty.

However, Dr. Rarieya also outlined four main factors that keep girls in school.  First is the girls’ sense of agency, meaning that the girls have aspirations to become ‘something’.  Second, the girls recognized the value of education as a means to improve their lives.  Third is school life; the girls liked the curriculum and their teachers.  Lastly, schools give girls the opportunity to find role models who they want to emulate, such as their teachers, head teachers, and even Dr. Rarieya herself.

The second speaker, Ms. Jennifer Blinkhorn, is the Director of Education with Aga Khan Foundation Afghanistan.  She outlined the challenges facing girls’ education and the work that the Foundation is doing to address them. First, there is a dire lack of suitable school buildings for the number of students enrolled.  Second is the overall lack of teachers, specifically female teachers, as well as a lack of qualified teachers in rural areas.  Third is the short length of teaching time – primary school students are in class approximately two and a half to three and a half hours each day which limits what they can achieve.  Fourth, there are not enough people working in the school administration or in the government’s education administration.  Aga Khan Foundation Afghanistan addresses these issues by increasing the number of schools, increasing the number of female teachers by offering incentives to teach in rural areas, and building government capacity.  Additionally, the Foundation engages the community in an attempt to persuade members that education is good and that the curriculum is not ‘Western’ or against their values, as is often thought.

As an MPP student particularly interested in education policy, I was pleased when Ms. Blinkhorn spoke about the Foundation’s role working with the various levels of government to address the issues of gender and education.  Working mostly at the community level, she described the role of the Foundation as one of building resilience.  For example, should the education system, which has seen a number of improvements in the past 10 years, collapse in the future for whatever reason, then the community will still have the strengths and abilities to support themselves; the value of education as a tool for development has become apparent to the community.  The Foundation also works at the district and provincial level by delivering education, such as bringing books to schools and ensuring that school inspectors know what they should be doing.  At the national level, the Foundation works mostly as an advisor and has helped shape two national policies, including an early childhood education policy.

Both presentations provided detailed insight into the challenges and successes of girls’ education in Kenya and Afghanistan.  Having the opportunity to listen to these distinguished representatives of the AKDN speak about their research and experiences reinforced my belief in the importance of education and of having an inclusive and detailed education policy as two key tools for a country’s continued social and economic development.

James Nelson is a 2014 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance.  He also holds an Honours BSocSc in International Development and Globalization from the University of Ottawa.  He has worked in the federal government at both Health Canada and the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada, as well as the Institute for Democratic Governance which is a policy research and advocacy organization in Ghana.  His interests include global education policy and issues of sustainable development.

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