For 25 years, the Forum of African Women Educationists, a pan-African non-governmental organisation founded in 1992, has been promoting girls and women’s education in sub-Saharan Africa in line with the Education For All. Its Chairperson and first female Vice-Chancellor, University of Cape Coast, Ghana, Professor Nana Opoku-Agyemang explained to Funmi Ogundare its impacts so far, among other issues
Gender discrimination is one of the primary impediments to education which affects boys and girls. However, in many parts of the world, girls are most often the victims as they pursue an education.
For instance, for many African girls, five years of schooling is the most education they can expect and they are the lucky ones. Across the sub-Saharan region, almost 33 million girls roughly between the ages of six and 15 are not in school. 56 per cent of them may never have set foot in a classroom compared to 41 per cent of out-of-school boys.
According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics database, poor girls from rural areas with uneducated mothers are the children most likely to be excluded from learning opportunities. In West and Central Africa, more than 40 per cent of secondary school-aged girls are not in school and more than 60 per cent of illiterate young people in the world are women.
With this reality and statistics in mind, the Forum of African Women Educationists (FAWE), a pan-African non-governmental organisation founded in 1992 had a vision to ensure that gender disparity in education is significantly reduced to allow more girls have access to schooling, complete their studies and perform well at all levels.
The Chairperson of the board and first female Vice-Chancellor, University of Cape Coast, Ghana, Professor Nana Opoku-Agyemang said the forum develops programmes on public advocacy and influences policy at the government level, as well as follows up at the community and school levels to ensure that girls go to school.
With its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya and branches in about 20 countries on the continent, she said the board collates the activities of the branches at the various country levels and gives directions, advices and support where necessary, adding that each branch has its constitution and organogram.
“For instance we noticed that part of the challenge has to do with curriculum that was not gender responsive, we needed to do research to be able to share our findings and let people understand that the girl is not in class. I think the issue is specifically gender related that may prevent the girl from moving up.”
She argued that “we don’t have as many girls in school as necessary in Africa generally. If they don’t get into school, it becomes relatively difficult for them to move up either to the other levels of education or other levels of the economy. We also believe in the fact that they have to be grounded on the importance of education.”
She said the forum is interested in issues relating to violence in schools and broad issues about the economy “because it is not by accident that there is usually those who can hardly afford the daily necessities of life are the people whose daughters are not in school.”
The chairperson added that the organisation also tackles gender-based issues relating to the professional development of women. “For instance, if a country needs about 1,000 doctors and it has only 100 in the ratio 60 for men and 40 for women, you cannot say that because there is equity they are happy. So we also know that if we have many women doctors, for instance, if a woman should visit a woman doctor, she will feel a bit more comfortable let’s say for gynecological reasons, I am not saying that the male gynecologists are not effective but it seems that the women will be the best qualified person but again, I will like to assume that female patients will feel more comfortable if she were to be handled by a male doctor. So this is another related issue regarding the education of women.
“Why don’t we see many women moving up the professional ladder? what really accounts for this? How can we intervene? What can we do? So these are the complex issues that we tackle as a body.”
On its achievements and challenges in the last 25 years, Opoku-Agyemang, who was a minister of education in Ghana, said, “we are 25 years old, that is not a mean achievement. The forum started with about five African women, we met at a conference and we decided that we needed to do something and if in 25 years, we have been able to enter into more than 30 countries, that is an achievement, we have also recorded success at various levels of operations and of course, one important challenge will always be funding because we operate at the national level. “For example, if country A gets funding from agency X and the proper things are not done, you will see how this will affect everyone.”
On how the forum has been getting funds, she said, “we write proposals the same way an organisation does, it can be from private agencies or even the United Nations (UN) agencies, in so far as their mission and interest coincide with the vision and mission of FAWE. If company A is interested as part of cooperate social responsibility to promote the education of girls for example, it gives an opening for you to partner to round up programmes for them.
“That is one way in which we can get funding, it is an NGO so depending on how the country defines it. There are some countries that have seen FAWE as implementing agency of all the activities for girls in education. Some countries see that since it is a non-governmental organisation, it does not need government funding for its activities, but what it does is to partner with government.”
Being the first female vice-chancellor in the University of Cape Coast between 2008 and 2012 and minister of education between 2013 and 2016, Opoku-Agyemang described life as very busy at both ends, saying, “being the first woman to become vice-chancellor that itself brought a lot of expectations and challenges. It had a whole lot of issues you had to deal with and so at both levels, I was very busy, the scope of responsibility were also different. At the university level, the scope had to do with the staff, faculties, students and communities, so in a way you see that it was difficult, you can propose policy at the university and sometimes you make policy. You can also generate your own practice because you have a huge level of autonomy in this country as far as universities are concerned.
“Again you do your practices in relation with other universities because you are in the same country and that is why the vice- chancellor in Ghana is very important, for example, if you decide to promote affirmative action, nobody will stop you because if university B is not doing it, it will be nice to hear and see how we can partner to ensure a particular intervention is useful.
“At the level of minister, the responsibility becomes deeper. For instance as vice-chancellor, it is the minister’s job to get funds for the vice-chancellor, so that was a sense of limitation. As minister, you have all the universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, vocational technical schools, secondary schools, you have from the public sector down to the research professors. The scope is wider and especially in this country, the ministry of education takes about 30 per cent of the national budget, in terms of public sector workers.”
She described the percentage as the highest in the world, saying that no other country has come close to this figure in terms of government support for education.
“The UNESCO is recommending 26 per cent, and people are getting nearer to it. They raise it from 20 per cent because nobody was getting near it, so it is a huge investment that Ghana makes for education. It was 24 per cent when I was there. So you have this huge thing to deal with. We have 217 districts, we have offices in each of the districts. In terms of population you have one-third of the population on your hand and in terms of the public sector workers, if at the time you had 600,000, we had about 200,000 in education alone, so it is a huge responsibility. At the campus, I had 17,000 students and 35,000 students on distance learning education. The lecturers and workers put together were about 4,000, but here you are talking about hundreds of thousands of people that you have to deal with as minister of education. The sense of responsibility is also deeper for quality assurance, credibility of examination and quality of learning generally expressed. They are just two different things.
The former minister, who had also served on the board of the Association of African Universities (AAU) said, “when I became minister, I felt I knew the challenges we were having. At the highest level of the board, I thought the least I could do was to try and get us a secretariat somewhere. Money was always a challenge and they were always competing demands which was part of what we had. Imagine making a case for something that people can’t even relate with and don’t understand on a daily basis why we have to find money for that. It was a challenge, but then I had a president who understood that this was important.”
She stressed the need for African universities to have a forum where they can talk about the challenges confronting them, share knowledge and learn from each other, adding that funding is also imperative for the association to set the agenda.
“This is why the association comes in. You know you have your own challenge in your small bee hive called the university, if there is a supporting organisation like AAU, that can help you. An association is there to train, so you are supposed to make the system run efficiently. You can gather people together in a one week workshop and raise the quality of staff that you have. I think that by partnering with the AAU everybody stands to gain and we need to put in the funds so that we set the agenda.
“If you are always going to ask for money from others, we would tell you what to do and really, I know we have challenges, but the more of our universities that can join, then the more resources you have and the better place you are to say this is what I want to do. We are talking about differentiation, but there are so many questions you should be asking and so many responses that we should be advancing so that nobody sets the tone for you.”