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This post, written by Percilla Obunga, FHI 360 project management specialist on gender and girls’ education in Kenya, originally appeared on FHI 360’s Degrees blog, and can be accessed here.

adolescent girls readingFor the last four years, the Four Pillars PLUS project has been working with girls of primary and secondary school age in Kenya to address the complex barriers to achieving their educational success.  The project is funded by the General Electric Foundation for the years 2008–2015.  Using the Four Pillars strategy — scholarship, teacher professional development, mentoring of girls and community participation — notable changes have been realized in girls’ enrollment, retention and completion at the primary school level and in their improved performance, transition and retention at the secondary school level. The community has gradually accepted and supported the important role of girls in society, and teachers too are motivated to use the gender lens in achieving success in educational programs.

It has been a long journey to work with the girls as they go through so many challenges in life. My personal experience in working with communities has been challenging and rewarding at the same time. Communities — especially those with cultural barriers to girls’ education — need to be involved from day one, and throughout all the stages of project implementation, if support of the girl child is to be effective. Additionally, girls need to be empowered to know and believe that they are not inferior. That is why the Four Pillars PLUS project collaborates with women role models who represent hope and support as they mentor girls on life skills, good decision making, healthy choices and reproductive health issues. This approach has helped girls make greater strides in achieving educational success.

Creating lasting changes in the lives of girls has always been at the forefront for the Four Pillars PLUS team and, indeed, it continues to be a rewarding experience to see future productive women in our society. The girls are working hard in school, teachers are very committed to ensuring good performance and school administrators all join hands to make the school environment friendly to the girl child.

The Four Pillars PLUS strategy is a holistic approach that has proven to work wonders in improving educational outcomes for girls and other vulnerable children in the society.

According to the UNFPA, girls in developing countries who receive seven or more years of education marry, on average, four years later and have approximately 2.2 fewer children.


In early August, the international news agency, Reuters, reported that families in Kenyawere selling their daughters into marriage, sometimes for as little as $168.00 dollars, in an attempt to ease the economic burden caused by drought. The story about the “child drought brides” gathered international attention. Sadly, the situation inKenya is not unique. Climate change, and its detrimental effects on the environment, disproportionately affects adolescent girls and is increasing girls’ risk for school dropout, early marriage, sexual violence, and other negative outcomes.


“Climate change and local environmental change may destroy all of my dreams and aspirations,” 15 year-old girl from the Philippines

Drought and natural disasters often increase the economic burden felt by vulnerable households.  In the aftermath of natural disasters, families may experience job loss, home damage, and loss of crops and livestock. Girls are often the first pulled out of school to help supplement the household income.

Girls may also be forced to leave school in order to shoulder some of the burden of increased household responsibilities. Girls may be expected to care for sick or injured relatives or to provide childcare for younger siblings when parents are traveling to collect aid or food.  Furthermore, drought, deforestation, and natural disasters often cause adolescent girls to spend more than half of their days looking for wood and clean water; this results in less regular school attendance.  When a girl is forced to leave school, not only is her education jeopardized, but she faces increased risk of early and unintended pregnancies, and HIV and other STIs.

The economic burden of climate change also increases a girl’s risk of early marriage. Many families arrange marriages for the “bride price” and to ease the burden of having to feed and care for girls. Early marriage often results in girls leaving school and increases the risk of early pregnancy.

In disaster situations, women and girls are more likely to experience all types of violence including sexual violence. Girls are at risk of sexual violence while staying in relief shelters, on the way to the shelters, and when collecting water or firewood while staying in a shelter.  Sexual violence leads to poor health consequences for its victims including unintended pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and death. Also, because families perceive shelters as unsafe, girls may be left at home, making them unable to benefit from the reproductive health services offered there.

Programs and policies need to place a greater focus on the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change on the reproductive health of adolescent girls. In a recent report called “Weathering the Storm: Adolescent Girls and Climate Change,” Plan International makes the following programmatic and policy suggestions.

Programs should ensure that girls have: 

  1. Greater access to quality education
  2. Greater protection from gender-based violence  
  3. Greater participation in activities related adapting to climate change and reducing risk

Policies should:

  1. Prescribe gender-sensitive strategies for adapting to climate change
  2. Address gender inequality as a root cause of vulnerability to climate change


The South African HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS) launched a new regional program titled, “Young Women First!” (YWF!), which focuses on the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for young women ages 15-24 years. The program mobilizes young women, empowers them to serve as advocates, and provides them with information and skills. Among other activities, it produces a newsletter for young women to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health issues, and it offers advice and provides a platform for young women to share their stories related to SRHR. The following post was adapted from an article that appeared in their first newsletter, entitled “Sexual Abuse Preventing Progress on Education Targets.” The original article was written by Fred Katerere, who is a foreign correspondent based in Maputo, Mozambique.


Worrying statistics on sexual abuse in schools and high female drop-out rates mean Mozambique and other countries in the sub-Saharan Africa region may not reach the 2015 education and gender targets set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In Mozambique, although authorities do not have exact figures, teenage girls often fall pregnant before reaching 16, the legal age of marriage, which usually puts an end to their education.

According to a 2008 report compiled by the Mozambique Ministry of Education and Culture, many of these pregnancies are not consensual and girls are impregnated by teachers who ask for sexual favors in exchange for passing grades. Not only are female students becoming pregnant, but they are also becoming exposed to sexually transmitted infections through their teachers. The report, entitled “Mechanism to stop and report cases of sexual abuse of girls,” documented that 70% of female students said a teacher had asked them for sexual favors in order to pass. Such abuse is not confined to Mozambique, but is so common in Africa that it has been labeled “sexually-transmitted grades” or “BF” which refers to “bordello fatigue,” when girls have had too much sex with teachers and are tired in the classroom.

A recent Plan International report, called “Learn without fear,” found that sexual abuse is institutionalized in many school systems in sub-Saharan Africa. It also noted “high levels of sexual aggression from boys and teachers towards schoolgirls… in Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, and Zimbabwe” and found that one third of all documented rape cases and abuse of schoolgirls in South Africa is committed by teachers.

As governments and world leaders meet to discuss the MDGs at the 10-year point, problems like these will remind them that there is a long way to go before we can reach the 2015 targets to eliminate gender disparity in education and women’s empowerment. According to the 2009 United Nations Human Development Index, Mozambique, a nation of more than 22 million, has an adult literacy rate of just 44%, and only 33% of its women are literate, much below the regional average. The UN also notes that the sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia regions are “home to the vast majority of children out of school.”

It is against this background that organizations like UNICEF in Mozambique have embarked on initiatives aimed at complementing the government’s program to call for zero tolerance of abuse of girls in schools. Carlos dos Santos, an education specialist at UNICEF, said that although cultural practices that disfavor girls are still mostly responsible for the higher numbers of boys being sent to school, there are many cases of girls who drop out after being impregnated or abused by teachers, other students, or members of the community.

“There is work that is being done in schools to help in reporting cases of sexual abuse of girls, and this will help in combating the phenomenon in communities and schools,” he said, noting that authorities confirm such cases are rife, especially in rural areas where most residents do not have much information on their rights. UNICEF and its partners are currently conducting research in order to come up with a database on the problem. It has also advocated for school councils that will be chaired by teachers, parents, and guardians of students.

Dos Santos said councils are headed by women from local communities who regularly meet with girls and receive reports about sexual abuse. Mozambique’s Ministry of Education and Culture has also created a Teacher’s Code of Conduct that, among other things, calls for disciplinary action against a teacher who sexually abuses a student. In 2008, two teachers in southern Inhambane province were expelled for allegedly impregnating three students, and three teachers were suspended pending dismissal on the same charges in Maputo province.

Ursula Paris, a child protection specialist at UNICEF in Maputo, said her organization was also working with officials from the justice and police departments to update them on new clauses in the country’s family law that further protects women and children. “It’s never too late to act, as each day which passes, a girl is made pregnant and her life is ruined,” she said.

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This blog is brought to you by the Interagency Youth Working Group (IYWG) with financial assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The content is managed by FHI, which functions as the secretariat for the IYWG.
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