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|A programme that provides a meal in school is boosting enrolment in Mali, especially of girls Sounds of laughter and games fill the desert air in this scorching November day.
The children of Kadji primary school in northern Mali are out to play. The noise level is rising steadily until suddenly all is quiet. The bell has rung. It is time to eat.
The children gather in groups of fifteen under trees and one of their comrades sets a large metal bowl containing rice and peas in the centre. Twenty large bowls are thus distributed to the schoolchildren.
A meal in school children to attend regularly
Thanks to the UNESCO/World Food Programme (WFP) School Feeding Programme pupils in Gao, Kidal, Tombouctou and Mopti in northern Mali receive a meal a day in school. “These regions are particularly poverty-stricken and many parents struggle to give their families a daily meal,” says Edouard Matoko, Director of UNESCO Bamako.
In this extremely poor part of Mali, the dominant economic activity – subsistence agriculture – relies for the most part on difficult climatic conditions. The region is desert or semi-desert and the Sahara is steadily inching further south. Enrolment is the lowest in the country, where the national average was only 61 per cent in 2000. This can be partly explained by the fact that some children have to walk nine or ten km each way.
Almost 90,000 children in these regions where food insecurity is a problem benefit from the programme. Dry rations are delivered to schools and local women are trained to cook the meals and calculate the calories that every child should receive. “We are preparing these communities to rely on themselves,” says Alain Mubalama, Chief of the WFP offices of Gao and Kidal. “They take care of the everyday running of the programme and give what they can to make it work – usually firewood and meat.”
Incentives to girls
For those who have a fair distance to cover on foot every day, a meal in school is a great incentive to attend regularly. “Before, many of our children had to return home to eat at midday and several didn’t go back in the afternoon,” says one father. “Now they go to school regularly and stay all day”.
An important aim of the programme is to boost girls’ enrolment, which in the northern regions is less than 50 per cent. Girls who attend regularly are given 10 litres of cooking oil three times a year – an extremely expensive item in the family budget. “Now girls are coming regularly,” says one teacher. “Previously, they were enrolled in school but didn’t always show up.”
Although she is married, Aminata, 15, comes to school every day, proof that attitudes are changing. In many African countries early marriage and pregnancy put an end to girls’ schooling. “Girls don’t work as well as boys in class because they know that sooner or later they’ll have to leave to marry,” says one teacher. Once Aminata leaves school, she hopes to go to nursing school in Gao, eight km away. And her husband agrees, she says.
A meal in school is making the difference. Enrolment in Kadji primary school increased by a third between 2000 and 2003, and girls’ enrolment shot up by 50 per cent.
Parents gain too
Illiterate parents are already finding that their children can be a considerable help to them even before finishing school. “Before, we had to pay someone to read our letters or even go to Gao to find someone,” says one parent. “Now that every family has at least one child in school , they can read their own letters and write back. This in itself is an argument in favour of school.”With an uncertain future ahead, parents are beginning to believe that sending their children to school could actually improve families’ prospects in the long-term. “Now we’re sure that our children who are in school will be able to stop the desert from advancing further and they’ll bring happiness to our community,” says one parent.
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Ute Meir, UNESCO Paris