Universal primary education by 2015 is among the so-called Millennium Development Goals set seven years ago by the United Nations. While significant gains have been made toward reaching that goal, much more needs to be done, especially in Africa.
High school dropouts like Faty Seye face an uncertain future, complicated by poverty, disease and malnutrition. The 24-year old woman from Senegal is working to beat the odds. Doing odd jobs at a garage outside the capital city, Dakar, she learned she could get automotive skills in a program run by a local private organization. "They would teach me to be an automobile mechanic. It was free, and I enrolled."
The program, run by "Case de Jeunes Femmes" or "Young Women's Shelter" offers both classroom studies and hands-on experience with mechanics at the garage. Taking an engine apart for the first time, Seye seems unfazed by the fact that women rarely do this kind of work. "As long as you love your job, you will do it well, and that is what matters."
"Young Women's Shelter" works with dropouts and single mothers and helps get homeless girls and prostitutes off the streets.
UNESCO finds that in Sub-Saharan Africa girls make up more than half the 38 million out-of-school children. The girls (unlike their brothers) are usually kept home to do chores and to care for siblings and sick parents.
Carolyn Bartholomew heads the Basic Education Coalition, a Washington-based consortium of international development groups. She says keeping girls in school pays off in a multitude of ways. "You get economic development returns. You get healthier children, lower infant mortality, HIV prevention, and stronger families." She adds that education puts aspirations into action. "Educated mothers are far more likely to educate their own children so you get a cycle that moves things positively into the future."
In east Africa, girls growing up among the semi-nomadic Maasai tribes of Kenya face cultural obstacles to an education. Traditional values force many to accept early-arranged marriages. Many girls are also forced to submit to female circumcision, a controversial procedure critics call female genital mutilation, which aims to reduce their sexual responsiveness.
A few girls, such as 14-year-old Evelyne Meitiaki, make their way to the AIC Primary School, a boarding school with more than 600 girls located near a small town south of Nairobi.
Against her father's wishes, Evelyne came to this school when she was five, brought by her two older sisters, both of whom had been circumcised. "My father was annoyed [with] us. He was not even talking to us. He was saying that he was going to curse us. But after we came here, people advised us."
The school 'rescue center' accommodates 75 girls, who live and take classes through high school supported by a Kenya-based NGO. Evelyn says she hopes to become a lawyer and to fight against early marriages and female genital mutilation. "I'll make sure that it is ended, and I promise my girls will not be circumcised."
The Maasai view these 'rescued girls' as rebels and a threat to their traditional way of life. Teacher Catherine Korrompoi, a Maasai herself, says Maasai culture must evolve to survive. "We are the ones to be agents of change in this society and if these girls change positively, then it means they will change the whole community."
And that change, according to Basic Education Coalition director Carolyn Bartholomew, will depend on access to a quality education, resources and a commitment from all sectors of society. "From the father who decides that his girls should be educated, to the national and international leaders who have the funds to assist those programs."
Bartholomew says educated citizens are central to Africa's future. They promote democracy and stability. With so much at stake, she says, no society can afford to leave half its population behind. "Investing in education in women is the best investment we can make."