Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of education exclusion globally, according to the UN. Nearly 60% of youth aged 15 to 17 are not in school. Activists on the continent are now fighting to change that.
Education is considered a universal human right, as well as an issue of public good and responsibility. However, there are still many — particularly children in developing African countries — who do not enjoy this right.
As the world marks the fourth International Day of Education under the theme “Changing Course, Transforming Education,” The United Nations (UN) is calling for action.
In many African nations, those who can afford education send their children to private schools in the city. But that is not an option for many in rural areas, or for poorer families.
According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), over one-fifth of African children between the ages of 6 and 11 are not in school, while nearly 60% of youth between the ages of 15 and 17 are not enrolled.
The education of girls is of particular concern: 9 million girls on the continent between the ages of 6 and 11 will never attend school, compared to 6 million boys. By the time they reach adolescence, girls have a 36% exclusion rate compared to 32% for boys.
It is still common in many areas to find children on farms or playing on the streets instead of attending school.
Some countries lack proper school structures, and many are dilapidated.
“There are no toilets, desks, or even chairs in my school,” Umaru Harisa, a primary school student in Nigeria, told DW. He also complained that his school is very far from his home.
“I think our teachers are dedicated, but it’s very hard to learn with nothing to help us,” he said.
Differing attitudes towards the value of formal education is another major problem. Skepticism of Western-style learning and the belief that girls don’t need an education compounded with regional instability have created a challenging environment for learning to thrive.
In South Africa, at least 40% of all students drop out of school before completing grade 12. Girls make up the majority of this group.
The consequences of youth prematurely dropping out of school are severe and long-lasting, with many often trapped in a vicious cycle of unemployment and poverty.
“I should have continued with my studies instead of falling pregnant,” Akhona Wanda, a teen mother in South Africa told DW.
Nontathu Wanda, Akhona’s mother, explained that she wants a better future for her daughter, and accessing education is crucial to achieving that goal.
“It is very important for her to finish school in order to fulfill her dreams,” she told DW.
Girls like Akhona need support beyond the classroom, however most African countries lack programs to empower girls holistically.
One example of such an initiative is Isibindi Ezikoleni — which roughly translates to “Courage in Schools” — organized by the National Association of Childcare Workers in South Africa. The program focuses on tackling the root causes of disengaging from school to prevent students from dropping out.
“What I have learned in this group since grade 8 is how to be responsible and take care of myself as a girl,” one student told DW.
South African youth worker Nomvula Piri stresses the importance of constantly engaging with children who drop out of school and encouraging them to return and continue their studies.
She has helped several pregnant schoolgirls including Akhona return to class after giving birth.
“I ensured that she got her homework and did not fall behind,” Piri told DW. “She could always speak to other teachers or me. It was really important for her to continue with her schoolwork during that time.
In northern Nigeria’s Minchika village, local authorities are also encouraging children to stay in the classroom.
Yunus Musa, the co-founder of the Give North Education campaign — which advocates basic education for all, not just a privileged few — has dedicated his life to helping rural kids access education. He believes getting African children back to school is key to society’s progress, especially in developing nations.
“Only education brings my people out of the darkness,” Musa told DW. “Without this education, there won’t be any record of achievement.”
Alhaji Ibrahim Sani, a local community leader in Nigeria, says activists like Musa are making an impact.
“We used to write letters to parents and deliver them house by house to encourage the children to go to school,” he told DW. “Sometimes, the children here even take themselves to school to enrol. But still, the main thing discouraging school attendance is the distance from the school to the village.”