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Day of the African Child: It’s time to let girls learn

June 16 marks the Day of the African Child, a day to celebrate the children across Africa and renew commitments to addressing the challenges they face. This year’s theme, Education for All Children in Africa: The Time is Now, calls for action to address the barriers to access to education across Africa. With girls being disproportionately represented in the almost 46 million school-going children out of school across Eastern and Southern Africa, our work across the continent addresses some of the specific barriers girls face. 

What barriers to education do girls across Africa face?

Across Africa, and around the world, girls face numerous barriers to accessing education ranging from economic to cultural issues to rights violations such as child marriage, sexual violence, teenage pregnancies, female genital mutilation (FGM), and sexual exploitation. 

Even though girls’ access to education has improved globally, Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the most affected regions with girls’ enrollment remaining very low across all education levels. From discriminatory bans barring ‘visibly pregnant’ girls from accessing education to sexual violence in or on the way to and from school, States across Africa are failing to protect and promote girls’ right to access education. 

Policies banning pregnant girls from education

Every year at least 120,000 girls in Tanzania drop out of school for reasons including teenage pregnancy and child marriage, according to a 2021 World Bank report. As well as failing to address the causes of teenage pregnancy, the Government of Tanzania has a discriminatory policy that allows the expulsion of pregnant school girls from school and prevents adolescent mothers from returning to school after giving birth. This is a violation of their right to education and future economic opportunity. 

Sierra Leone had a similar ban in place until 2020, following legal action by Equality Now, together with Women Against Violence and Exploitation (WAVES) and Child Welfare Society (CWS) and in collaboration with the Institute for Human Rights and Development (IHRDA) at the ECOWAS Court of Justice. 

Following the Court’s ruling, the Government lifted the ban in March 2020 and has since enacted a Policy on Radical Inclusion resulting in girls being granted access to education. The Government of Sierra Leone has also initiated interventions that will support girls’ education such as the re-entry policy and establishing a multi-sectoral task force that periodically discusses the challenges girls face. our efforts to promote the multi-sectoral approach (MSA) in the Bo and Kenema districts have led to an increase in both reporting and prosecution of sexual offenses, along with a significant reduction in the time taken to finalize investigations (from 14 to 7 days).

Failing to protect girls from being married as children 

In 2023, the Government of Zambia passed the Marriage (Amendment) Act of 2023, unequivocally setting the marriageable age at 18 for all without exception. In a country with an estimated 1.7 million child brides, this law will be a critical tool in ongoing efforts to eradicate this harmful practice. However in many countries girls are still not protected by the law, and it is legal for them to be married as children. Once they are married, girls often drop out of school and are unlikely to return. 

The law alone is not enough to protect girls from marriage as children; comprehensive implementation of the law including a focus on addressing the drivers of child marriage is vital to ending this harmful practice. 

Learn more in our recent policy briefs on child marriage produced in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum (SADC PF).

Lack of protection from sexual violence in educational settings

In Zambia, for example, adolescents and schoolgirls are often subjected to sexual violence. These violations occur in traditionally safe spaces such as schools and homes, where guardians and caregivers are sometimes the perpetrators. Many girls are raped, sexually abused, harassed, and assaulted by teachers and male classmates. They are also subjected to sexual harassment and attack while commuting to and from school.

Such abuse is devastating and is an often overlooked manifestation of the gender-based violence that occurs in numerous settings in Zambia. Many incidents of sexual violence go unreported because of victim shaming, stigma, and fear of reprisal as well as unresponsive school authorities and legal systems; and in the end, they do not get redress.

Yet, these patterns cause serious physical and emotional injuries to young girls, discourage them from continuing their education, and reinforce discriminatory patterns in the family and society.

Conflict and insecurity disrupt learning

Conflict around the world puts increasing numbers of people at risk, particularly women and girls who face greater rates of rape, forced marriage, and exploitation as the rule of law breaks down. Despite some progress, the widespread insecurity and conflict in South Sudan, combined with certain cultural practices, has debilitated access to educational opportunities, particularly for girls in South Sudan. 

In 2013, only 500 girls were in the last grade of secondary school in the whole country. Since then, the country has made strong strides toward empowering its female learners. The number of students in schools has risen from 1.6 million students in 2013 to over 2.3 million in 2021, with female enrollment rising from 21% in 2005 to 49% in 2021, according to Ministry of Education figures.

However, millions of children are still out of school, with UNICEF estimating that over 2.8 million children, amounting to more than 70 percent, are out of school in South Sudan, jeopardizing their futures as well as the country’s. 

How does a lack of education impact girls’ lives?

Lack of education significantly impacts girls’ lives, depriving them of opportunities to thrive and often trapping them in cycles of poverty. It can increase their vulnerability to child marriage and other forms of violations. 

Education is both a right and an enabler to other rights and empowerment of girls; lack of it therefore exposes girls to further abuse and exploitation. This has significant repercussions for girls, their families, communities, and countries.

Without access to education, girls are more likely to remain economically marginalized, limiting their employment prospects and earning potential. Consequently, this not only stifles their personal growth and self-actualization but also undermines the overall economic progress and development of a nation. The World Bank estimates that limited education opportunities for girls and the barriers to completing 12 years of education cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion dollars in lost lifetime productivity and earnings. 

The failure to enforce laws that protect the rights of girls and the continued violation of girls’ right to education have adverse effects on their lives, and the failure of the State to prevent violation and prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence perpetuates a cycle of violence and discrimination against adolescent girls that can affect their whole lives.

Governments across Africa must act to let girls learn 

At Equality Now, we use the power of the law to protect and promote the rights of girls to education and change attitudes that act as barriers to girls’ education. We advocate for laws that address discrimination in education and also ensure that barriers to girls’ education such as sexual violence (including in schools), and harmful practices such as child marriage that infringe on girls’ education are criminalized as well. 

Access to education for girls encompasses more than just enrollment; it also entails ensuring a safe and supportive learning environment. Efforts to improve girls’ access to education must address not only enrollment rates but also the creation of safe and inclusive learning environments where girls feel protected, respected, and empowered to pursue their education without fear or discrimination. 

The law is the first step to ensure that the government’s obligations in education are fulfilled: making education available, accessible, acceptable, and adaptable.


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