IN 1991 a historic meeting in Paris, convened by the Association of Donors to African Education, brought together all the ministers of education in Africa. Only five were women and they were galvanised by a single concern: the lack of knowledge about, and action for, girls' education that characterised discussion of education in Africa.
Research shows that the education of women has a remarkable effect on a range of "quality of life" indices and is a key factor in development. Most readers are not setting about changing the odds in favour of women with nearly enough vigour. Maybe they would be inspired, as I am, by the example of the five women ministers at that meeting in Paris and those who have joined them.
Fay Chung (Zimbabwe), Vida Yeboah (Ghana), Paulette Moussavo-Missambo (Gabon), Simone de Comarmond (Seychelles) and Alice Tiendrebeoga (Burkino Faso) held informal discussions with Joyce Moock of the Rockefeller Foundation, Peter Williams of the Commonwealth Secretariat and Ingemar Gustafsson of SIDA. They found an enlightened and receptive audience for their conviction that concerted action must be brought to bear on the cause of girls' education.
The outcome was the formation of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), comprised of only highly placed African women in education such as ministers of education and university vice chancellors. The idea was that members should be policy makers or could influence policy as well as articulate gender issues. The first general assembly was held in 1992 and a regional powerhouse was established.
We now have 48 full members drawn from African countries, 20 associate members comprising male ministers of education and permanent secretaries, and 22 national chapters that work on issues in their own countries.
The gender gap in primary school enrolment has widened more than narrowed in many countries. Worldwide, some 130 million children, mostly girls, have no access to school. In sub-Saharan Africa growth in school places has not kept pace with population growth and nearly two million more children are out of school than 20 years ago - again the large majority girls.
Secondary education is accessible to only 17 per cent of sub-Saharan African children. Out of the 17 countries for which data is available, only South Africa and Mauritius have no gender gap in school participation rates.
The countries with the least literate people in the world are mostly in Africa. Similarly, sub-Saharan Africa has the world's youngest brides.
The FAWE needs to work at several levels. At a political level it needs to bring about policy reform and create a social environment in which such reform would be acceptable and supported. At a policy level it can set up think tanks to generate ideas founded on information and experience. At a practical level it needs to support and expand innovative and cost-effective projects to close the gender gap.
The South African chapter of FAWE began by focusing on policy on gender equity, particularly in higher education. Mamphele Rampele, vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, helped establish a gender institute that was partially funded by a FAWE grant. This institute will influence policy decisions on a national, regional and continental level. It will provide a nurturing environment in which women from all over Africa can develop themselves academically. Finally, the institute should raise the profile of gender issues at the university and in higher education throughout the continent.
But gender parity in school education does not of itself translate into gender parity at universities, especially for those on an academic career track. A considerable body of academic work shows that women, on the whole, do not fare as well in academic careers as men. This is not a contentious proposition and can be supported just as much by glancing at the composition of any university governing body, senate or ways and means committee, as by reference to gender-disaggregated statistics showing that women are in greater force in the lower ranks of academic institutions and increasingly marginal where pay, prestige and power reside.
It is interesting to note that the reasons offered for the paucity of women in senior university positions in South Africa are broadly similar to those evinced by studies worldwide. Put simplistically, there are overlapping psychological, cultural and practical complexes that do conspire to make many women esteem themselves less, and to feel unable to compete or cope in a male-defined and dominated institution.
Cultural norms, despite the influences of gender-sensitivity, still find women shouldering the larger share of child-rearing and home-making. In universities this is often mirrored in their taking more responsibility for teaching, and for the pastoral care of their students. This clearly affects research output and other efforts important to promotion.
So we must search beyond equity to discover the codes and rituals that hold women back, and to unearth the informal hierarchies and norms of institutions that continue to thwart academic women. The disastrous state of education for women in most African countries has led FAWE to focus on schooling for girls. Without unlocking the rituals and hidden codes that govern the lives of girls it cannot wrest them from child labour or adolescent marriage and pregnancy. Without building their esteem and independence it cannot keep them in school. Scholastic achievement is only possible if the girls are first freed from the cultural ties that bind them. For it is in primary and secondary schooling surely that our life's template is drawn and our belief in our worth and capability is derived. In countries where schooling for girls is the norm, even the law, we have become complacent about the subtle codes that oppress girls or train them for submission. We have forgotten that women's historic struggle for education is not won until we free our girls.
I want to end by quoting from a poem by a primary schoolchild, recited to the FAWE executive in Nairobi at a recent meeting.
I dream that girls in the world
Will go to school togetherwith boys
And not have to leave school earlier
Because they have to help at home
Tell me, women who went to Beijing
Do I have a chance?
Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal and an executive member of FAWE. The FAWE secretariat is at 12th Floor, International House, Mama Ngina Street, PO Box 53168, Nairobi, Kenya. Tel ++254 2 330352, Email: WacFawe@Formnet.Com