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Traditional Leaders Tackle Female Education in Niger
By Souleymane Anza
Inter Press Service

NIAMEY, Mar 24 (IPS) - Traditional chiefs in Niger have vowed to help improve school attendance among girls and reduce the gap in the school attendance rate with boys.

At a national symposium on 'The role of traditional chieftains in the survival, protection and development of women and children' in the capital city Niamey on Mar. 8-9, some 200 traditional leaders (provincial, district and village chiefs) wrestled with issues of education and health in rural Niger.

According to official statistics, the overall rate of school attendance in Niger is 32.23 percent. Only 25.3 percent of that represent girls.

Several reasons, most notably socio-economic and religious ones, militate against greater school attendance among girls in the countryside.

In principal, most people generally agree with the idea of schooling for children. However, many continue to see school as a ''den of iniquity'' for girls. Others think that the school does not properly prepare girls for their future roles as mother and wife.

The second objection some parents have is that attending school will interfere with girls marrying at the appropriate age.

A large majority of Niger's rural communities marry their girls off at a very young age, usually 12 or 13.

The traditional chiefs, who act as sort of auxiliaries to administrative officials, plan to develop various strategies which will persuade their followers to send their daughters to school.

They will explain that the more education girls get, the easier it will be for them later, both socially and economically.

Another talking point will be the fact that educated women also manage family finances and small businesses better and can contribute to the success of their own children in school.

Rima Salah, UNICEF's regional director for west and central Africa, pleaded with the leaders to do more to guarantee the rights of children and women in rural areas. The symposium was financed by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

''Only you, the guardians of tradition, culture, and moral and religious authority, have the means to move your communities to the understanding that education is important, especially for girls,'' she told the chiefs.

Rima stated that the traditional chiefs were ''an essential element in the movement for children's welfare''.

In 1994, the Niger government set up the Technical Unit to Promote Girls' Education (CTPSF).

According to the unit's coordinator, Mai Manga Therese, CTPSF's goal is to ensure at least 40 percent of girls are attending school by the end of 2000.

Manga honoured the traditional chiefs by attributing the unit's success to their ongoing involvement in CTPSF activities.

After the symposium, a draft treaty between UNICEF and the traditional chiefs was signed, ''laying the groundwork for a lasting and sincere partnership,'' according to Rima.

According to the treaty, UNICEF will provide financial and material aid to the traditional leaders by helping initiate and monitor the recommendations which resulted from the symposium.

At the end of the symposium, the traditional chiefs recommended that all programmes sponsored by international organisations seeking to improve school attendance among girls be coordinated and synchronised.

They also requested that educational and training centers for both attending and non-attending girls be created, as well as shelters for girls.

In his closing speech, the Niger's Minister of Defence, Sadiou Dady Gaoh, assured both UNICEF and the traditional leaders that the government would spare no effort in carrying out the symposium's many recommendations.

The Minister said the symposium's recommendations provided new avenues of attack against the low school attendance rate among girls in Niger.

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