As the centennial of International Women's Day nears, it is worth noting that 101 million children around the world do not attend primary school, and girls are disproportionately represented in this appalling figure. And by secondary school, girls' participation in eastern and southern Africa plummets to only 24 percent. The reasons for not sending children to school vary, but in many developing countries there are burdensome school fees. Additionally, pressure for girls to marry and begin childbearing at an early age, or demands to leave school in order to earn an income or care for a family weigh heaviest on girls. When a family barely eking out a living has to choose between paying to send a son or a daughter to school, they inevitably choose the son.
The result of this difficult choice is to keep girls from having the many opportunities a formal education presents and to maintain a cycle of gender inequality in many parts of the world. Research shows that education can dramatically improve a person's life and is a vital step in combating poverty. A child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive to age five. And, providing girls with one extra year of schooling can boost their wages up to 20 percent.
Luckily the news is not uniformly bad. Literacy rates in the developing world are on the rise through the hard work and determination of families, communities and nonprofit organizations. And nations around the world have promised to achieve universal primary education for all children by 2015. But more than 70 countries are not on target to meet their goals for universal education.
While the value of formal education will never diminish, creative ways of providing non-formal education are popping up around the globe. The Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA) is one of the driving forces for non-traditional education in the developing world. CEDPA's Better Life Options program includes sessions on sexual and reproductive health, nutrition and hygiene, self-esteem, life skills, civic responsibility and gender relations. Since 1987, the Better Life Options program has reached hundreds of thousands of girls in many different countries around the world, including Egypt, India, Nepal, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. The model is culturally adapted to each region to ensure that participants can relate to the lessons being learned.
Blessing is a young Nigerian woman whose dreams of becoming a doctor ended in 2005 with the death of her father and the resulting financial hardships for her family. She dropped out of school in order to help her mother with their stall at the market and to ensure that her brother completed his education. Two years later she entered CEDPA's Better Life Options program, funded by Exxon Mobil Foundation. "I used the goal-setting model (from the program)," she explained. "I was able to save money, thinking that I wanted to go back to school." Today, Blessing is studying medical sciences and is on her way to becoming a doctor. 85 percent of the 2,649 young people enrolled in Nigeria completed the program.
"CEDPA will continue to apply our strategic approach to expanding opportunities for girls with a non-formal educational focus on life skills training," says CEDPA President Carol Peasley. "It motivates girls to delay marriage and childbearing and to continue their education. And it also gives them a means to earn a livelihood. We will continue to build family and community support to ensure that girls' enrollment and completion of school equals that of boys. We will also continue to take advantage of opportunities to integrate our Better Life Options program into schools, as we have done in Jharkhand State in India."
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