A Burning Question Remains Unanswered

A Burning Question Remains Unanswered

Gender equality is very likely the single most important factor in a culture’s viability.

There.  I said it.  It’s hardly a revolutionary statement, but perhaps half the world would accuse me of “Western chauvinism” for writing those words, and too many among that half are willing to take up arms to destroy such a pernicious assertion.  Many would counter my statement with the dictates of some god; others draped in the mantel of science would insist that gender equity will never be possible because, biologically, human males and females are so inherently different that they can never share equally in natural advantages.

Be that as it may, exploring gender equity would form my mission during my time in Senegal.

Take a deep breath, I told myself.  If nothing else, that sophomore anthropology course we took at university should make us educators humble in our judgments—especially when traveling in a land not our own.  How many times have we been reminded that one man’s superstition is another man’s faith; the cherished institution that allows one woman to endure decades of oppression may one day imprison her daughter’s identity.  Within the borders of the United States, carrying the banner for gender equity is hardly a courageous or transgressive act, but carrying such a banner in certain other countries might be seen as an imperious challenge their very cultural foundations.

With all that in mind, I entered the classrooms of Dakar and Saint-Louis with an open mind, a longstanding commitment to gender equity, and a burning question.

Or at least I imagined I had cultivated an open mind.  In the back seat of a car in Saint-Louis, I realized that some of my beliefs were almost too deep for me to recognize.  When my host teacher invited my American co-teacher and me to dinner at his home, where his second wife was at that very moment preparing our meal, I feared my shock and unease at the term second wife were somehow visible to him.  I summoned my composure, said I’d be delighted to join his family, and made a mental note that my commitment to serial monogamy and partner fidelity is hardly a universal norm.  Henceforth, I vowed to keep opening my mind throughout my visit.

(My friend and co-teacher William set a better example of open-mindedness; while I swallowed hard, William simply asked Dominique, “What’s that like, having two wives?”  I relished his frank curiosity.)

As for my commitment to gender equality, I had cultivated it throughout my teaching and coaching career, had enforced it once I became the father of a daughter, and had redefined it in the current era of non-binary recognition and activism.

As for my “burning question”—well, I phrased it bluntly at first:  “What factors, both subtle and obvious, deter young women from pursuing education and literacy in Senegalese schools?”

Before departing for Senegal, the Fulbright staff had asked each of us to formulate a research question we would explore during out visit.  After a cursory online investigation of Senegal’s education system, I gave myself the task of identifying barriers to female education.

Consider this startling statistic:  In Senegal, only 1 in 3 girls will make their way to secondary school (https://theconversation.com/only-1-in-3-girls-makes-it-to-secondary-school-in-senegal-heres-why-and-how-to-fix-it-200294).  For context, UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics records Senegal’s 2021 adult literacy rate as 56%—the 16th lowest in the world, according to the World Bank (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS?most_recent_value_desc=false&view=chart).  Worth noting is the significant gap between adult female literacy (45%) and adult male literacy (68%) in Senegal (see https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.MA.ZS?locations=SN).  The Education Policy and Data Center reports that, while Senegal has seen significant progress in educational access during recent decades, “Currently, less than half of all working age Senegalese have ever attended formal education, and in rural areas, the percentage is lower, with roughly 75% of working-age adults in Senegal never having attended school” (www.epdc.org/node/5939.html).

Laden with such statistics, I was prepared to encounter a grim reality when I entered the doors of Senegal’s schools.  What I found—while not contradicting those statistics—in the end gave me hope.

To begin, the students I encountered—girls and boys, young women and young men—were engaged in their studies and respectful of their teachers and of each other.  A certain modesty of dress and appearance prevailed (as compared to my students back home in New Mexico), and I noted that, in general, fewer young women in secondary schools wore a hijab than did girls in primary school.  I have no statistics to validate my anecdotal observations, but I recall confiding to my co-teacher William that more young women than young men possessed English fluency in the classes we visited.

It's important to put my observations into context:  I visited classrooms in only two cities, the capital Dakar and the former colonial capital Saint-Louis; furthermore, my visits were scheduled and my destinations curated.

The school that most impressed me, Le Lycée de Jeunes filles de Ameth Fall in Saint-Louis, was (as its French name implies) an all-girls institution.  Perhaps its inviting facility and its orderly atmosphere were primarily a function of adequate funding (which is rare among the other public schools we visited).  Indeed, it was difficult to know precisely how its program is funded and what tuition its students are assessed; it’s worth noting that its Facebook page states that “Our school is fortunate to have a strong commitment of support from the U.S. Embassy in Dakar.”  When I visited this impressive school and spoke with its female director, I wondered if gender-segregated schools might prove especially effective in bridging Senegal’s educational gender gap—but when I broached said question to her, either linguistic barriers or her native discretion prevented an in-depth answer.

To be clear, gender parity varies widely among Senegal’s cities, towns, and villages.  In Dakar, for instance, 70.0% of young men and 70.7% of young women made the transition from middle school to secondary (high) school in 2017, reflecting recent progress toward closing the nation’s educational gender gap and in general improving educational access for all of Senegal’s young people—who by the way comprise over half of the nation’s population.  (That is to say, more than half of Senegal’s population is 18 or younger; see https://theconversation.com/only-1-in-3-girls-makes-it-to-secondary-school-in-senegal-heres-why-and-how-to-fix-it-200294).  By contrast, in Saint-Louis, 62.0% of boys make the transition from middle to high school, whereas only 54.7 of girls do (www.education.sn/sites/default/files/2019-08/RNSE%20_2018%20%20-DPRE_DSP_BSS-%20vf%20juillet%202019.pdf#page=64).

An interview in The Conversation’s with researcher Benta A. Abuya of the African Population and Health Research Center reveals some of the reasons behind Senegal’s educational gender disparity.  At the outset, it’s worth noting that some 39% of Senegalese people live below the poverty line.  Worldwide, we repeatedly see gender disparity rise where poverty prevails; so too does infant mortality, teen pregnancy, and violence directed at women.  As Dr. Abuya observes, the threats to gender parity in Senegal are manifold:

“Despite the existence of government programmes—like free public school education until age 16 and the Girls’ Education Support Project, which provides school uniforms—the cost of schooling is still an obstacle for many families.  They have to pay for learning materials and transport to school.

We also found a preference to educate boys over girls.  In households with limited finances, boys are more likely to be sent to school even if girls would like to go.

Additionally, girls who are delinquent, lack interest in school or engage in unsafe sexual activities tend to be judged harshly by communities.  They are viewed as bringing shame to their families.  They are, therefore, withdrawn from school and married off early in an attempt to address this behaviour.

Deep-seated cultural beliefs and practices—such as female genital mutilation, forced child marriages and early pregnancies—also prevent some girls from making progress in school.  They, therefore, lag in education and wellbeing.

The legal age of marriage in Senegal is 16 for girls and 18 for boys.  But families decide when girls get married.  For example, in the Kolda region in the south, 68% of girls get married before they turn 18.  This is more than double the national average of 31%.

In a scoping review we did in 2019, we found that out of 1,321 adolescent girls, 78% got pregnant between ages 12 and 18.  Of these pregnancies, 25.6% occurred before the girls turned 15.  And in an exploratory study we did in 2021, teenage pregnancy was predominantly cited in Zinguinchor and Sedhiou regions in southwest Senegal, as leading to girls dropping out of school.

Some girls marry early because their families believe it makes them less likely to fall pregnant in a transactional sexual relationship.  Others marry early if they see it as the only opportunity to make a life after dropping out of school” (https://theconversation.com/only-1-in-3-girls-makes-it-to-secondary-school-in-senegal-heres-why-and-how-to-fix-it-200294).

A report from the International Monetary Fund’s African Department corroborates Dr. Abuya’s conclusions:

“In Senegal, early marriage and early pregnancy are still relatively common: in 2016, 31 percent of women of age 20 to 24 were first married by the age of 18, and 8 percent by the age of only 15.  Early marriage is one of the main causes of girls’ dropping out of school, and this happens during secondary education.  Having children at a young age not only forces girls to drop out of school but also sharply increases the chances of maternal mortality: 629 deaths per 100,000 for mothers aged 15–19, compared to 371 deaths per 100,000 births for mothers aged 20–24.   Authorities also note that, in terms of financial incentives, it usually makes more sense for a poor family to marry their daughters than to continue to incur costs—including the costs of sending them to school.  In Senegal, even though school is supposedly free and mandatory, there are hidden costs such as buying school material and transportation to school. Furthermore,…prospects for well-paying jobs are weak for Senegalese girls” (https://www.elibrary.imf.org/view/journals/002/2019/028/article-A002-en.xml).

Can I admit that, even though I was armed with such statistics, I was remarkably unsuccessful at exploring Senegal’s educational disparities any more deeply than I had with my online research.  The short duration of my visit, my linguistic barriers, and, perhaps most of all, my fear of being a bull-in-a-china-shop amateur anthropologist prevented me from asking the challenging questions I’d imagined I would subject my hosts to.  (There was also the matter of hypocrisy, too, as the U.S. educational system manifests its own gender disparities.)  For all these reasons, as my visit unfolded, I told myself to simply “shut up and observe” during my brief toe-dip into my host country’s murky waters.

So let me return now to my ill-defined Fulbright mission in Senegal.  While in country, was I to be an educational ambassador from the United States?  Almost certainly.  Was I to be a grateful guest of the nation and impromptu teacher?  With joy and trepidation.  Was I to be a cultural critic?  Best refrain.  Of course, I couldn’t help myself playing cultural critic during my hours of reflection in my hotel room, but I hadn’t collected enough data first-hand to draw any firm conclusions worth sharing in public.  Let me declare that my opinions herein are tentative.

During one late-night journal reflection, I recalled my time living and working on the Hopi Reservation, where gender roles were, at least for the older generation, strictly defined; as a newly minted Indian Health Service nurse, I kept my opinions to myself and focused on short-term strategies to aid my patients’ healing.  As an outsider, I was limited in what changes I could recommend to help them improve their longer-term health outcomes.  (Like “Drink less alcohol and eat fewer corn dogs.”)  In Senegal, I remained similarly realistic about my agency as a visiting teacher.

But evidence of gender inequality—perhaps Senegalese traditionalists would say “of gender-role differences”—was manifold during my time in-country, observable within families, in public religious observances, in schools, and in the workplace.  Of course, so does my own country suffer from the same; in fact, in all countries and communities where gender inequity prevails, so do economic injustice, superstition, and squandered opportunities.

In time, I recognized that asking my burning question so boldly might block further discussion with the teachers I met in Senegal, so I revised it—which is to say, I gentled it by de-gendering it.  Perhaps I could learn more by asking a less threatening question:  “What factors, both subtle and obvious, deter young people in Senegal from making the transition from primary to secondary education?”  My Senegalese teaching colleagues could answer that question more readily.  Most of their answers were rooted in economics.  Resources were scarce; education, like most other national institutions, suffered accordingly.

In the end, an even gentler but still pertinent question I’m asking now that I am home—and the question that I might ask more deliberately were I to return to Senegal one day—is “What initiatives, both governmental and cultural, encourage young people to make the transition from primary to secondary education?”  Expecting people burdened by one of the lowest Human Development Indices in the world to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and undergo a gender-role revolution is grossly naïve.  Programs like UNESCO’s “Keeping Girls in the Picture” program (www.unesco.org/en/covid-19/education-response/keeping-girls-picture) and  the Women’s Health Education and Prevention Strategies Alliance (www.borgenmagazine.com/womens-education-in-senegal) exemplify two such initiatives.  Moreover, any agonizing reappraisal of educational gender parity must include related explorations of national teacher-training programs, vocational training opportunities, institutional autonomy, and the anachronistic role that daaras (Quranic schools) play in the nation’s education system.  Complicating matters further, all such reappraisals must take place in an era of global climate change, whose effects on poverty, national emigration, urban immigration, and environmental degradation cannot be underestimated.

Our cultural constructs, like a species’ physical traits, persist when their benefits exceed their costs and perish when the costs become too high.  To this outsider, it appears that the costs of gender disparity for Senegal’s citizens far exceed the benefits for the empowered few.  But until enough people draw a similar conclusion, gender inequity will persist in this admirable, troubled nation.