By Richard Lee
KABUICHA, Sierra Leone, 11 June 2007 - Tapping the numbers on the blackboard with a bamboo cane, four-year-old Aster Kamara confidently counts from 1 to 15. It is an impressive performance and she is deservedly applauded by her classmates as she returns to her seat.
But what makes it even more impressive is that Aster is in school at all.
Just three years ago, the Kabuita Community School was a simple grass hut, where few children - and almost no girls - ever turned up for class. But thanks to a new brick building and changing attitudes towards education, the school is now packed with pupils every day.
And more often than not, girls actually outnumber boys.
Better schools, better chances
"Our new building really improved the situation because parents began sending their children to school," said Alusius Kargbo, one of Kabuita's two teachers. "Most of the girls in our community now come to school."
UNICEF and its partners are now providing teachers - up to 40 per cent of whom are untrained - with proper training, as well as funding the construction of new primary school facilities.
At schools throughout Sierra Leone, wells are being dug to provide clean water and toilets are being installed to improve sanitation. Brand new classrooms are also replacing mud huts or buildings destroyed during the country's civil war. All of this is helping to make both community and state-run primary schools more child-friendly.
A child friendly school acts in the interests of the 'whole' child, which includes his or her health, nutrition and overall well-being. This approach helps to increase overall enrolment, attendance and performance - particularly of girls.
Early marriage still a barrier
But Alusius knows that getting young girls into school is often the easy part, while ensuring that they stay there is normally much harder.
"It is very difficult to make the parents keep their girls in school," he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "Sometimes when their breasts show, the parents will say, 'Oh, there is no need for them to go to school - let her go and marry!'
This view is prevalent across Sierra Leone, where early marriage - often when girls are just 12 or 13 - is still firmly entrenched. This age-old custom is one of the main reasons why the narrowing gap between boys and girls in primary school is not being replicated at the secondary-school and university levels.
Poverty often forces parents to send their daughters to work selling goods in the streets and markets or labour in the fields and forests rather than study in class, especially as many of them still believe it is more important to educate their sons.
Dreaming for their daughters
And yet there are some real signs of change. A growing number of parents are beginning to grasp the importance of education for their daughters and to realize that early marriage simply perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
"I am ready to make Aster continue up to university because I understand the value of education," said Mohammed Kamara, after welcoming his daughter home from school. "In the old days, girls would be given to men for marriage. I don't want Aster to end up that way."
Enlightened parents are pushing their daughters to complete their schooling and even strive for a place at university. Yet despite the many success stories, the gender gap at the secondary and tertiary levels remains extremely wide, and there are no quick or easy answers to eradicating it. Traditional beliefs and customs will take many years to change, as will the reconstruction of a school system that was - like so much else in Sierra Leone - wrecked by war.
Still, the gap is narrowing, and that is good news for the girls and women of Sierra Leone.