A Case for Girl-Friendly Schools in the Middle East

The Middle East presents a complex puzzle when it comes to equipping and empowering young girls with the tools for a better future. One development strategy that deserves more time in the spot light is the construction of girl-friendly schools. Girl-friendly schools, also known as child-friendly schools, strive to provide a quality, gender sensitive education. This type education may hold the possibility of great gains in eliminating the gender gap between girls and boys in both literacy and school attendance.  

The challenge to get girls into school in any country where gender inequality exists is an uphill battle. When a society cannot recognize the long term, or intrinsic benefit to educating its female population, it becomes very easy for the costs of education to deter a family from sending its girls to school. Dissuading factors might include monetary things, such as school fees or uniform costs, or the missed asset of having another set of hands to accomplish chores or domestic tasks. Girl-friendly schools meet these challenges by emphasizing quality resources, involving one’s community, and seeking to meet girls geographically.

According to UNICEF, “quality plays a critical role in closing the gender gap in basic education.” In the Middle East, and in any developing country, having a child attend school is only as good as the education itself. Child-friendly schools strive to have the necessary material resources that facilitate effective learning. A big component of this which makes all the difference for girls is access to running water, and proper sanitation facilities. Puberty is a make or break time for girls when it comes to continuing on with their education. If they are not able to take care of their basic sanitation needs at school, it can translate into absences, and eventually, falling behind in one’s studies. Girl-friendly schools take into account simple things, such as separate bathroom facilities, which we would imagine to be vital in a socially conservative society.

For girls in the Middle East, it’s of utmost importance that girls not only feel physically safe at school, but safe socially. Girl-friendly schools strive to provide the emotional safe havens through both curricula, and through well trained teachers. Better trained female teachers specifically set a good example for girls, and provide a sense of unique encouragement to strive for a career in regions where female workforce participation is low. Curricula in child-friendly schools seek to be unique in that it invites students to pursue their own interests rather than following strict traditional learning methods. Enabling girls to pursue their imaginations could breed strong rewards as they seek to become creative agents in the future. Putting passion back into the classroom will undoubtedly serve to help motivate girls in their education, and set them up for success.

One of the best characteristics of girl-friendly schools that would stand to help change societies views of a girl’s potential is community involvement. Families and community members are expected to be heavily involved in students’ lives, and making sure that they are performing to their full potential. While there is no one-size fits all model, often parents will take turns, and if one student is absent from school they will visit their home to see what the reason is. This creates a sense of accountability for students, whilst creating a sense of owner ship for older generations over the success of their local school. In the Middle East, this could serve as a type of grassroots initiative that spreads awareness as to the positive effects of girl’s education. If a stigma has been built up against females, then a gradual overwhelming consensus in the other direction from one’s community may be the only things that can defeat that.

Child-friendly schools make a point of addressing the development issues specific to the communities in which they are founded. Most fundamentally, they are planted with a geographical eye. They seek to target girls in the mostmarginalized areas. For rural children, proximity to school makes a difference in school attendance, and for girls, saving time (and therefore lessening the tradeoffs of school) is of the essence. In addition, child-friendly schools look at other local needs, like nutrition. Oneexample of addressing this need might be a student earning a bag of food periodically for high school attendance. When a family sees this, there is more incentive all around for a girl to be in school, as they are seeing an immediate benefit to their family member’s education.

The Middle East is in need of innovative and sustainable solutions to help bridge the gap in girl’s education. For the negative cycle of female disempowerment to be broken, the region will need to see firsthand what the benefits of education are, and girl-friendly schools can help do that. An article on foreignpolicy.com states, “there's now a virtual consensus among development specialists that reducing gender inequality is critical to jumpstarting economic growth in the poorest countries -- and that the surest route to greater equality lies in education.” The importance of girl’s education is as clear now as it has ever been. With the proper knowledge at hand, we can start championing promising solutions, and girl-friendly schools are one of them.

-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she graduated with a degree in International Affairs. She is headed to Washington D.C. for a year-long volunteership in the fall, with hopes to continue to pursue her love of writing and encouraging leadership among young women.