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Group Backs Africa Girls Education

August 16, 2001

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) _ Grace Arach wants to go back to school but worries she might be too old. Arach is just 20 but this is Africa and the school she’s talking about is elementary school.

Arach’s education was interrupted in 1996 when she was abducted by Ugandan rebels. She spent five years in captivity in Sudan before she managed to escape in April.

``I was beaten and forced to carry heavy loads, and I suffered like many other girls,″ Arach said.

``Now I long to go back to school,″ she said. But Arach said she is concerned she would not fit in among 14- and 15-year-olds in Uganda’s seven-year elementary education program.

Arach’s story, told Thursday on the sidelines of a UNICEF-sponsored conference, is not as unusual as it may seem. Hundreds of girls have been kidnapped in Uganda, some of them, though not Arach herself, while they were attending school.

About 150 girls from across Africa gathered in the Ugandan capital with UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy and education officials and experts. They discussed ways to demolish barriers to education for African girls, with the goal of presenting proposals at a Sept. 19-21 U.N. summit on children in New York.

Action is critical to Africa’s progress, they say, pointing to studies showing the role of women’s education in lowering infant and maternal mortality, reducing fertility rates and increasing economic productivity.

On a continent where many children never go to school or only attend for a few years, African girls are less likely to attend than boys.

Of the 42 million children in sub-Saharan Africa who do not have access to education, 60 percent are girls, said Michel Sidebe, the U.N. children’s fund representative in Uganda.

The biggest obstacle is poverty and in this girls are more penalized than boys. Many Africans barely have the means to feed their children, let alone pay for books, uniforms and other school-related expenses.

Ugandan Wanguiu Annet is trying to raise money to continue her schooling, cut short after her father died in 1994 when she was 10.

``We are three girls out of eight children, but our relatives will only send the boys to school. They say sending girls to school is a waste of money because we will just get pregnant,″ the 16-year-old said.

She was referring to the common practice of male teachers and principals requiring sexual favors in exchange for good grades.

The practice explains why girls from 14 to 19 have a rate of HIV infection five times higher than that of boys of the same age, said Florence Kanyike, the Uganda coordinator for the Forum for African Women Educationalists or FAWE.

In rural Africa, many parents still prefer that their daughters stay home so they can marry the girls off earlier in exchange for a nice dowry, such as a cow or a goat.

``Parents in my country do not want to send girls to school because they say they are meant to stay at home,″ Kasaga Kodiatou, a teacher from the West African nation of Burkina Faso said. ``So even girls aged 11 or 12 are married off.″

Salome Katia told the conference of the time a teacher beat her with a cane because she forgot to put her name on an exam paper. The 22-year-old Kenyan woman said she wouldn’t have minded so much if the six others in her class _ all boys who made the same mistake _ had received the same treatment.

``There are many complexes, including cultural norms in our societies, that make girls and even women discriminated against in many things, including education,″ Katia said.

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