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Shaping Grittier Girls In And Out :

A Process of Institutionalizing Sustained Aspiration, Passion and Perseverance

By Carole Audrey Nyemeck

· Africa,Education,Women,Human Rights

Carole Audrey Nyemeck of Change Magazine Essay Competition on Girls Education in September 2017, which attracted submissions from 20+ countries across the world. Carole's article was carefully selected after the careful evaluation from the judging panel consisting of 5 experts in the media and education fields.

Fatima is an eight-year old girl who lives in Briqueterie ; a neighbourhood in Yaoundé (the political capital of Cameroon). The neighbourhood is constituted in majority of muslim (and non-muslim in minority) populations of the Northern Cameroon (Adamawa, North, and Far North regions).

Though she is the youngest of a family of four, she has to do the majority of chores at home. Her two elder sisters, barely out of adolescence, are already married to polygamous husbands to whom they have begun bearing children. Her elder brother has been sent to the family's village farm in the North region. As a result, he is now out of school, has learned Kuran, and earns a living as a shepherd. Fatima's parents are themselves uneducated and live in Yaoundé through the selling of grilled meats coming from the village’s farm (commonly called ‘soyas’).

At ten, Fatima will get married to a man thirty years her elder, who already has four wives, and has paid a huge dowry to her parents. Thanks to their future son-in-law, Fatima's parents have been able to expand their village’s farm and their soyas business. So, there is no way for them to look back. As a result, Fatima can no longer concentrate on her studies. She has barely two years left to get ready to be a good wife and mother.

At the public school that Fatima attends in Briqueterie, all her female comrades share in the same fate. School cannot be the priority for those little girls. Besides, they have the daily difficulties of getting up early to go and fetch water at many kilometers away from home, washing dishes and clothes, cooking, helping parents to sell (even sometimes going on foot to far-away neighbourhood) and in late afternoon, again going and fetching water for the remaining chores.

In that environment, Fatima, who wants a different life, dreams of finishing elementary school, going to secondary school, getting her Hugh school diploma, and going to a pilot school. Every night, she prays that Allah hears her and helps her realize her dreams. At school, she uses her breaks to study hard and revise her lessons. Her friends laugh at her ‘foolish dreams’ ; as they call it.

Fatima has countless reasons to get discouraged, lose hope, and give up on receiving a quality education. Fortunately for her, a Cameroonian NGO has just set headquarters in Briqueterie, with the intent of empowering disadvantaged girls and women. During the international day of the girl, the NGO, which receives funds from UN entities and other global stakeholders, decides to visit the public school of Fatima, in Briqueterie. That day, Fatima soon attracts the attention of the NGO, when during the Q&A session, she tells in front of the whole class that she dreams of becoming a pilot; while the other girls content themselves with their imposed fate. From that moment on, the NGO begins to get in touch with Fatima and her family, and to explain to them the benefits for a girl of getting a quality education. The NGO even succeds to convince the parents that if they let Fatima finish elementary school, they will give her a scholarship to study at their boarding secondary school for gifted girls. They also help them earn a loan to pay back the dowry of the man who was to marry Fatima.

Seven years later, Fatima earns her high school diploma in Mathematics and Physics, with honours. She has no problem finding a full scholarship to enter a prestigious pilot school. That is how Fatima finally becomes a remarkable pilot, who dramatically raises the living standards of her family, and serves as a role model for girls in her community.

Through that story, what I am picturing is the avatar of how girls from less developing countries are shun out of school even before the end of elementary school. I am showing that it is because of enscribed and ‘enshrined’ mentalities that girls pay more when they are raised to attract and get married to well-off men. Also, authorities find it difficult to intervene concerning access to quality education because the whole environment (school, home, church, social gatherings) is firmly pervaded by those mentalities. As such, only NGOs which work at the grassroots level with women and men who have become community role models can successfully address that challenge. By digging into the daily difficulties that the role models went through in their search for quality education, the NGOs are better equipped to develop and implement a model of empowerment for disadvantaged youths in general, and girls in particular. Better more, when the role models themselves start grassroots organizations, it is far more effective and empowering. Such an exemple is that of Hawaou Adamou, who, after getting out of child marriage, went on to launch an NGO called Association des Femmes Haoussa pour le Développement (AFHADEV). Under her leadership, the organization provides basic literacy activities to disadvantaged girls, namely : financial literacy, self-development, and educational outreach. The organization also helps girls obtain grants from global stakeholders, in order to start their own projects and become financially autonomous.

Hawaou Adamou at the right.

Photo from Hawaou Adamou's facebook page.

As a whole, community role models need to develop social entreprises at the grassroots level, that will leverage access to quality education from elementary school to secondary school, as a means to pave the way for university. A model of social startup I propose is that of a grassroots organization that creates grit boarding schools and summer academies.

Grit is a concept developed by Angela Duckworth, an American psychologist. Through the grit scale, her colleagues and her measured the degree of interest in a subject/goal, passion developed from it, and perseverance shown in the pursuit and attainment of that goal. It led them to the following equation : talent x effort = skill; skill x effort = achievement. What grit equation reveals to us is that, ultimately, even if conditions for quality education are put together, the girl will need to find an academic subject/goal that attracts her interest, then stick with it through sustained efforts, in order to achieve excellence and success.

The research of Dr. Duckworth and progress in neuroscience have shown that even in STEM fields, the brain can keep working hard to teach itself how to master those subjects. So, grit boarding schools and summer academies will use their grants to develop curricula that help girls cultivate grit through the following long-term courses: self-development, emotional intelligence, financial literacy, vocational activities, grant writing, communication and analytical skills, and a high focus on STEM fields.

The social startup will recruit girls for its grit schools by administering the test of the grit scale to student girls of primary schools selected for educational campaigns and outreach. Successful student girls will enroll in grit schools from the last two years of elementary school to the last year of secondary school. The benefit of a grit boarding school is that it will cultivate a culture of grit (from the outside in), while grit curricula will generate grit from the inside out. As a result, girls will emerge out of the grit boarding schools not only with quality education, but also better equipped to handle adversity, and with opportunities to reach out to the most prestigious universities, job positions, and startup creation.

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