KABALA, Sierra Leone, 15 December 2009 - Hawa Marrah, 12, is a pupil of the Islamic Primary School in Kabala, an agrarian community in northern Sierra Leone. Her results from the National Primary School Examination have just been published and she is one of five girls who had the best results in the district.
Hawa's score is considered very impressive considering the low passing rates of girls in this part of the country, where the number of girls who complete their primary and secondary education is very low.
In Sierra Leone, an estimated 69 per cent of primary aged children attend primary school. Though attendance rates for boys and girls are almost equal at the primary level, there is a high dropout rate for girls and their enrolment in secondary education is low with net a secondary school attendance rate of only 19 per cent.
Barriers to education
The greatest barriers to the education and development of girls are early pregnancies, child marriages, poverty and sexual abuse. Hawa is one of the few girls who has been able to make it this far.
Though the Government has a free tuition policy, the cost of school materials have led many girls, most of whom come from poor families, to look for extra income in order to keep them in school. Some even engage in prostitution to pay for it.
"I studied with candles and kerosene lamps every night because there is no electricity supply in my community, yet I feel so privileged to have taken the exams and passed with high grades like children in other areas of the country who have better facilities. I am so proud I made it!" Hawa said.
Victims of prejudice
"Some of my friends have dropped out of school due to early pregnancies and marriages," she continued. "In fact, a good number of them have fallen victim to cultural and traditional prejudices which continue to keep them at home instead of in school."
In order to ensure that girls stay in school, UNICEF works closely with the Ministry of Education, Youths and Sports and development partners to provide quality primary education through the construction of classrooms, provision of water and sanitation facilities, training of teachers and the provision of teaching and learning materials.
UNICEF also assists in developing policies to ensure access to primary education, create retention, foster completion and high performance of pupils, especially girls. Support is also provided to establish child-friendly learning environments that are rights-based, gender-sensitive, healthy and safe for children to learn in.
Recognition of achievement
The Ministry of Education Youths and Sports, in collaboration with UNICEF and its partners, championed Girls' Education Week in October to illuminate the issues and challenges of educating girls in Sierra Leone and to advocate for stronger policies that will see more girls complete their education.
Hawa was one of more than one hundred girls who excelled in their academic work and were recognized and rewarded with school materials and uniforms in every district across the country.
"I want to be a medical doctor in the future so that I can contribute to efforts at reducing child and maternal mortality and make a difference for the children of this country," she said.