Twelve-year-old Ramata Barry was married to a man in her village this year. She hopes to stay in school.
Twelve-year-old Ramata Barry was married to a man in her village this year. She hopes to stay in school.

In the Fouta region of northern Senegal, cultural attitudes about education have made sending girls to school a low priority for families. Though some progress has been made, educators who once fought to get more girls in school are now struggling to keep them there.

Education, particularly for girls, has traditionally been a low priority among the conservative ethnic groups that dominate Northern Senegal's Fouta region.

But strides have been made.

Female students said they find it hard to juggle h
Female students said they find it hard to juggle homework and housework, like doing laundry

Now, more than half of the region's children are enrolled in school. Girls have begun to outnumber boys in many village classrooms.  But educators say many of those girls will drop out before they finish middle school. They blame that on poverty and early forced marriage, still a common practice in the region.

Earlier this year, twelve-year-old Ramata Barry was married off to a man in her village. She is continuing her studies, for now.

"It is difficult to come to school," she said. "When I leave school for lunch, I work at home. If I finish my housework, I can come back to school. Often, though, I am late."

When asked what will happen if she gets pregnant, Ramata looks at her hands and says she is not sure.

Teachers say they try to keep teen wives and mothers in school, but often it is a losing battle.

Ramata's math and science teacher, Mamadou Dia, says though marriage and motherhood do not necessarily mean a girl will drop out, school performance suffers.

Sometimes, he says, the girls do seem overwhelmed. They are not as productive as their classmates, he says, but they still manage to do their homework.

Even the girls who are not yet married have a hard time juggling homework and housework. Common chores for girls include sweeping, cooking and laundry.

Boys begin to outnumber girls in middle classrooms
Boys begin to outnumber girls in middle classrooms in the region

The Fouta region is dominated by the Peuhl ethnic groups, traditionally nomadic herders. Child marriage and female genital mutilation are still practiced here despite moves against the practices in the rest of Senegal.

Harouna Sy is a regional coordinator for Tostan, a community-led development group aimed at educating and empowering Africans, particularly women.

He says things are changing slowly, but in general the Peuhls do not value girl's education. He says, for them, it is much more important for a girl to learn how to manage a household, take care of her husband, do the laundry, cook a good meal and educate her children in the traditional values.

Sy says some families see educating girls as a threat to their culture, but poverty, he says, is the heart of the issue.

He says if a family has all they need to live, it does not need the girls for work so the girls can stay in school. But, he says, if a family has a teenage daughter who is not helping around the house and rather costing them money by going to school, they are tempted to marry her young to bring in some money.

In Senegal, it is illegal to give a girl, under 18 years of age, in marriage. But Awa Ndiaye, regional head of a Senegalese organization working to keep girls in school, says it is difficult to prevent early marriage, particularly in the villages.

She says when a father wants to marry off his young daughter, she and her organization try to talk to him. But, she says, many fathers completely refuse to listen, and they have to let them go ahead. She says they are limited in what they can do.

Tostan's Sy says educated women who work in the region as midwives, teachers or government officials often end up supporting their families. He urges parents to think about school for their daughters not as a handicap, but rather as an investment in their daughters' future.