I remember my mother being on the cover of a USAID calendar used for an education for girls awareness campaign. It hangs somewhere in our house and is a constant reminder to follow in her footsteps and her example to us and the community we come from, which has some of the lowest rates of female literacy in Cameroon. We, and our various friends and family, see this calendar almost every day, something that equals to about a quarter of our year crossing paths so to speak with that picture.
We don’t discuss it often, but sometimes it does inspire some thought and debate as to education, and the girl child, and the role of women in our society in general. There is a clear difference in the age groups and social groups who have these conversations, influenced by the ebb and flow of our various visitors over the years. I’ve listened to the ‘young at heart’ group that visit my parents, the ‘let’s rationalise this’ group who are much like my sister, the ‘we are activists’ group I’m most prone to hang around and the ‘chill bro, life’s never that serious’ group who visit our youngest sibling.
Through the varying arguments, positions, and ideas on the issue, one thing has always been clear – the topic has been discussed over and over again throughout the years. Not because someone actively brings it up, but simply because at one point or another, someone will look up at the calendar and ask a question which then leads to a myriad of others. The calendar has so-to-speak become part of our daily lives and in turn influenced constant discussion on the issue simply because we have had to face it almost every day. I think this is an element that most awareness campaigns miss.
Education is the key for girls. In most of African countries, many girls either never get beyond primary school education or get married off early and graduate to full-time employment as homemakers. Statistics abound to that fact across rural areas in the continent, and reasons as to why that is. Some speak to high poverty levels meaning boys’ education are prioritised as future bread-winners. Others speak to cultural stereotypes on the place of women in society and a general lack of awareness in communities as to the importance of education for young girls. As a result, most awareness campaigns target rural populations and address such issues around poverty and cultural aspects. These campaigns are rather innovative and use women from the communities who have been educated and succeeded to ‘spread the word’.
Sitting in a room with outsiders and one or two random community members who have since then moved far away two or three times a year does little in changing one’s perspective, let alone creating awareness. On young girls’ education specifically, realistic discussions about access, changing stereotypes and influencing culture positively requires more than these limited meetings. It requires every day conversations about the value of education and what it means for young girls in any given society. It requires coming across, in one’s day-to-day activities, those women in the community who have blazed the trail which we now struggle to overcome and are an active part of the work force. It involves coming face-to-face with changes in time, changes in the community, and a growing acceptance of the important place of education as a whole.
Beyond the work of donor groups in organising awareness campaigns in its various forms, it’s important that those of us who come from these communities with low literacy rates and who still live in them keep having these conversations– with our grandparents over a cup of tea, with the boy you often come across tending to his goats, with that girl who’s been top of her class every year in your local school, and with the woman who handles your transactions at your local bank.
If we’re all having these conversations in our ordinary day-to-day activities, stereotypes are bound to be challenged, opportunities are bound to emerge, and changes are bound to take root in the same way that a seed grows from constant care and attention. Besides, if an outsider can have the grace and time to invest in your community, why can’t you spare the time for a little chat?