New ICRW Report on School Dropout in West Nile, Uganda Highlights Harmful Gender Norms

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Erin Kelly

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Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

In most places around the world, girls are now just as likely as boys to be enrolled in primary school. This, however, is not the case in many countries across sub-Saharan Africa, where girls remain behind boys, particularly at the secondary level.

In West Nile, Uganda, a sub-region that has been ravaged by conflict in the past several decades, the problem is particularly acute, where women’s rates of schooling fall below the national average. Only six girls are enrolled in secondary school for every ten boys enrolled.

To determine the factors that contribute to girls dropping out of school at such high rates, ICRW partnered with the Forum for African Women Educationalist, Uganda (FAWE) to interview more than 800 girls, ages 14 to 18, in two districts of West Nile: Arua and Adjumani.

ICRW’s research found that gendered expectations and norms, or the roles expected for men and boys as compared to women and girls in society, were among the strongest determinants of school dropout for girls. These expectations impacted girls through decisions made at the household level and through beliefs they hold of themselves.

At the household level the result of such expectations was present in the impacts of high levels of domestic chores on girls’ schooling outcomes. Nearly 28 percent of those who dropped out suggested that chores severely interfered with their schooling. And while parents indicated that they support girls’ and boys’ schooling equally, they also acknowledged that girls encounter a higher domestic burden than boys. 

Additionally, girls’ own beliefs about their roles and their value as compared to boys’ roles and values were strongly associated with dropout. Of those surveyed, 70 percent of girls who dropped out of school agreed that men should have the final say in family matters, while this was the case for 58 percent of those still in school. Nearly half of the girls who dropped out agreed that boys should be more educated than girls; while only about 30 percent of girls in school felt this way.

Overall, dropout rates amongst girls were very high. Thirty percent of the girls surveyed had left school, most of them before entering secondary school. The overwhelming reason girls gave for dropping out of school was financial (more than 50 percent), with pregnancy being the second most common reason (13.1 percent).

ICRW’s research found that girls’ knowledge about contraception was low. Of the 23.5 percent of girls who reported having ever had sex, nearly half also reported having ever been pregnant and only 40 percent indicated they had used contraception. And while having sex did not indicate that a girl would drop out, drop out among girls who became pregnant was near universal, highlighting the need to ensure girls have knowledge and access to contraception to prevent unintended pregnancy.

On the positive side, a girl’s mother’s education plays a big factor in girls’ continued schooling. The odds of a girl dropping out were 54 percent lower for girls’ whose mothers had some primary level education and the odds of a girl dropping out were 67 percent lower for girls whose mothers had received any secondary education.

Overall, mother’s education, a girl’s own gendered beliefs as well her family’s, and her own self-rated performance in school were the most important factors determining if a girl was still in school or had dropped out.

Recommendations to improve girls’ rates of schooling are detailed in the report, including:

  • Implementing programs to transform gender norms in the community so that parents can better understand the harmful effects of the burden of domestic work falling on girls and to help parents understand the value of girls’ education and to dismantle subtle forms of discrimination against girls;
  • Implementing school-based programs that help improve the relationship between boys and girls and reduce gender-inequitable behaviors and attitudes;
  • Ensuring that both the health and education sectors coordinate to provide girls with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education;
  • Ensuring girls start school at the appropriate age and maintain grade-for-age progression; and
  • Strengthening policies that encourage the retention and re-entry of pregnant girls in school.

Research shows that an accessible, safe and high-quality education equips and empowers girls for healthier and safer transitions to work, citizenship, marriage and parenthood. These recommendations can help ensure that girls in West Nile, Uganda are supported in accessing the education they want and deserve.

“While the international development community has begun, at last, to turn its focus and attention to adolescent girls and the challenges they face; girls must feel support and encouragement from their parents, the school itself, as well as the wider community so that they come to believe in themselves, their capacity and can thrive,” said Stoebenau.

Click here to read the full report.