How traditional gender narratives can be used to advocate for girls’ and women’s education

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By Emily LeRoux-Rutledge, Lecturer in Social Psychology, University of the West of England

“Education is very important for girls, women and for everyone. Education is the thing that will develop our country, and without education, the country will never go ahead,” declares a voice on community radio, in rural South Sudan. It is the voice of a primary school teacher, urging his community to send its girls to school. His words perfectly encapsulate a socially shared narrative prominent in South Sudan and much of the world: the educated woman narrative, in which a woman who finishes school is expected to earn an income, acquire material security for herself and her family, and work for the development of the country.

“When the girl is educated, it will reduce the level of poverty…” he continues, “Let’s say your daughter gets married for 30 cows, and then an educated one gets married for 150 cows. That means… [the] poverty that was in that family—she reduced that.” Has he misunderstood the point of girls’ education? Not necessarily—he is now drawing on another socially shared narrative in South Sudan: the bride narrative, in which marriage happens through the giving of cows.

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This example demonstrates but one of the ways in which people in South Sudan are creatively using traditional gender narratives to promote gender and development goals, such as girls’ education. In a recently published study in World Development—which draws on qualitative interviews and focus groups with 94 research participants in three rural South Sudanese communities, as well as hours of community radio content—the findings repeatedly show traditional gender narratives being used in this way, alongside modern ones, to promote gender and development goals, including education.

Why does this matter? In development circles, there’s a tendency to blame traditional gender roles and norms for slow progress towards goals such as girls’ education. The conclusion always seems to be that, for gender and development goals to be realized, traditional gender narratives must be challenged and changed. For example, a recent UNESCO report on South Sudan claims, “[There is] a strong bias against girls’ schooling… [F]emales tend to be viewed as a source of wealth for the family as a result of dowry payments and relocation of the girl to her husband’s family once married.” But, as we’ve just seen, the bride narrative can be used to advocate for girls’ education. So is the narrative really the problem, or the way it is sometimes used?

To put it another way, is there any harm in using traditional gender narratives to support goals such as girls’ education? Perhaps. If inegalitarian gender beliefs are intrinsic to traditional narratives, then perpetuating those narratives might perpetuate gender inequality. But avoiding, or directly opposing traditional narratives risks being ineffective, and ignores the ways in which people on the ground may be creatively deploying them. Scholars who study the ways in which human rights for women are pursued and enacted in local contexts maintain that they must be “vernacularized,” or framed, in terms of existing norms, values and practices. The more successfully this is done, the more traction the ideas get.

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More importantly, traditional narratives need not be used in isolation. Arguments based on traditional norms, values and practices can exist alongside arguments based on gender equality. As the opening example shows, girls in South Sudan can be encouraged in their education both because it will make them more desirable marriage partners, and because women deserve to take their place alongside men in developing the country. Moreover, if material changes in women’s education levels are actually achieved, then shifts in traditional attitudes, norms and values may follow.

Indeed, traditional narratives are not necessarily static, a mistake that many development practitioners make. They can change over time—especially if they are used to support gender and development goals. In South Sudan, an educated girl used to be less desirable as a marriage partner, but a man must now offer more cows to marry an educated girl. Thus, it may be that the bride narrative in rural South Sudan is taking on a new dimension, which reinforces the value of girls’ education.

This is why the aforementioned World Development article argues there may be value in considering how to harness, rather than reject, traditional narratives in pursuit of goals like girls’ education. It may be time for us to carefully re-evaluate the assumption that traditional narratives are barriers, and critically assess when the use of such narratives is helpful to achieve gender and development goals. Ideally, we should do this without ignoring the possibility that traditional narratives may perpetuate gender inequalities, and without forgetting that transformational arguments, based on gender equality, can be used simultaneously.

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This strategy can work. It worked for Elizabeth, a South Sudanese women who was extraordinarily determined to get an education as a child—so much so that she even said, “I had to kill myself because my parents wouldn’t let me go to school”. First, she explains her ambition using the educated woman narrative:

“If I continue my education, then I will be educated, and I will be somebody that can help…. Someone who is progressing, someone who is coming up, there are so many things you can do, and so many ways you can help your country.”

However, she persuaded her parents to send her to school using the bride narrative, and is extremely proud of the cows her education brought to her family:

“My husband brought so many cows that my parents were happy…. If I had not reached Primary 7, then the cows that I was married with might have not been brought to my parents. Because I know, so far, if you are educated, then you can bring many cows and so many good things to your parents.”

This raises a final point: that women often legitimately value the identities, roles and norms represented in traditional narratives, which emphasize close family relationships—one of the most important determinants of well-being.

For all of these reasons, it may be time to let go of the idea that traditional narratives are barriers to girls’ and women’s education. Critically harnessing traditional narratives would recognize the fact that traditional narratives are strategic for women, are valued by women, and are currently used to support some of the very gender and development goals that the international development community seeks to achieve.

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Schools closing is a risk to our village’s future

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By Francis Silvester, director of a school in rural Kenya

facebook_1587499786414I run a private school called Tower of Light in a rural place commonly known as Yala Swamp 17km away from Siaya town in Kenya. It is a registered school with the Ministry of Education. On March 16th the President closed down all the learning institutions in the country because of the Coronavirus. My concern is that this might waste all the education efforts the children of this village have made. I worry it could send them back to their old life where girls get married and boys have to go back to the lake to fish.

I started this school because after my diploma in education in 2007 and completing my college education, I wanted to be a teacher, but the Kenyan government was not hiring at that time.  I wanted to help the children of Yala Swamp to read and write, because most of them were not going to school. Many girls were getting married at just 12 years old.

I ran a door-to-door campaign about the importance of children going to school. With the small fee of 100 Kenyan Shillings ($1) parents brought as a small payment, I was able to rent a room and I started Tower of Light with five children. The more I raised awareness in this village, the more they brought their children to school.  I worked hard and bought a small piece of land. Using old iron sheets, I built some classrooms. Some children are still in rented rooms because we have not enough funds to build more classes. Today there are 160 children, 70% girls and 30% boys, with 13 teachers teaching from ECDE to Grade 8. Nine of the teachers are female and four are male.


The shut-down of schools has added more complications for the children we were teaching. Those in Grade 8 are to sit for their national exams at the end of the year. The school is not connected to any electricity and there is no internet connectivity and therefore the Grade 8 students in this village are really disadvantaged compared to those who are in town and able to learn online.

Due to the virus most of the school-girls in this village are also at risk. Most of their parents are not working and therefore men take advantage of them in return for money or food to take to their families.

Life for the teachers has also not been easy as most of them depended entirely on what the parents were paying. Most of the parents are peasant farmers and a few of them work in a sugarcane farm nearby. They cannot pay if the schools are closed.

Because most of these teachers have families, they have had to look for odd jobs like fishing in the nearby lakes. Most of them are going hungry with their children.  As well as the school closures, there is also a curfew from 7pm to 5am every day for 30 days. This has made life unbearable for teachers as they cannot even look for jobs far away from where they stay.

20200311_112445The school at Yala Swamp faces a lot of challenges even in normal time, like the lack of good classrooms, a programme to feed children that are going hungry every day, enough desks and tables, adequate latrines, and enough funds to pay teachers regularly.

The challenges are so many but at least we are somewhere in terms of giving quality education to children who would not have gone to school otherwise. It is the best school in the region and it was named the top school in the national exams in a division of 100 schools.

I have seen how these students can be lifted up through education to realise their potential and acquire skills that are needed for real life. They would also help this village and the whole community. I just have to hope this virus does not threaten their dreams for too long.