Mauritania: Distance shouldn’t stand between girls and their education

Aichetou Mint Mohamed Ali, 14 is in class 8, the second year of lower primary at the College Riyad 5, Tarhil, Nouakchott, Mauritania.
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  • In 2015, only 55 girls out of 100 were able to transition to lower secondary school, mostly because schools were too far from their homes.
  • The government of Mauritania, with support from GPE, has built more schools in remote areas with high populations to meet the demand.
  • Now more girls are able to attend lower secondary school, giving them opportunities for a better future.
Mauritania map

At the age of 7, Aichetou and her family moved from Arafat to Tarhil, a neighborhood in the outskirts of Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, where she began attending primary school. Both of Aichetou's older sisters had gone to primary school when they lived in Arafat. Neither continued on to lower secondary school.

The government of Mauritania has made significant progress in recent years in ensuring more children have access to, and complete, primary school.

Between 2000 and 2018, the primary gross enrollment rate increased from 83% to almost 100%. Over the same period, the primary completion rate also rose, from 45% to 76%.

However, transition to lower secondary school remains a challenge, especially for girls. In 2013, only 55 girls out of every 100 were able to transition from primary to lower secondary school (compared to 61 boys out of every 100).

“Secondary schools are typically located in district towns, not in villages,” says Sid’ahmed Ould Baba, Director of the Directorate of Education Training Projects.

More children access and complete primary education in Mauritania

Many children live too far away to travel to and from school every day, and it’s not feasible for parents to leave their farms and move to more urban areas for the sake of their children’s education.

While parents are likely to feel comfortable sending their adolescent sons to stay with a friend or relative who lives near the school, they are far less likely to agree to similar arrangements for their daughters.

  • Aichetou and her friend Meia on the way to school in Tarhil, Nouakchott, Mauritania.
    Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

Bringing education closer to girls

In response, the government of Mauritania, with the support of GPE, has been building “proximity schools” in areas with large populations where higher numbers of children, especially girls, were not transitioning to lower secondary school.

After completing primary school, Aichetou was able to enroll in grade 8 in one of these schools, College Riadh 5, which had been built just two years earlier.

Every weekday, she walks about 1.5 kilometers to school. Initially she felt afraid on these walks, but the area has since become more developed, with more people and houses, and today she often walks with friends.

Aichetou is flourishing at school. She is proud that she always sits in the front row and participates in class, and is one of the top students.

  • Aichetou Mint Mohamed Ali, 14, in class at College Riyad 5, Tarhil, Nouakchott, Mauritania. Aichetou is in class 8, the second year of lower primary.
    Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

Aichetou, 14, is in class 8 at College Riyad 5, Tarhil, Nouakchott, Mauritania. GPE/Kelley Lynch
"I want to be a teacher of religious studies because religion is very important in my society. It sets the rules for communities and helps society know the difference between good and evil. A lot of people don't understand this and I want to teach them."

Having a school so close to home makes Aichetou one of the more fortunate adolescent girls in Mauritania, but her situation is not without challenges. Her school doesn’t have enough teachers, which means that she and her peers are not adequately prepared for their year-end exams.

“The lack of teachers is an issue in the areas where we have new schools and there are a lot of students. It’s a problem of shifting demographics and the movement of people. In general it tends to be solved; it just takes time.”

Mohamed Ould Khalili
Administrator at the teachers’ college in Nouakchott

The teachers at the school are under-resourced and there are no textbooks.

Aichetou, 14, is in class 8 at College Riyad 5, Tarhil, Nouakchott, Mauritania. GPE/Kelley Lynch
“First, schools should have textbooks. It is easier to learn when you can listen to the teacher and then go and read about what you learned in a textbook. Second, teachers should have a variety of textbooks, not just one, because that is boring. Third, we have research to do and we don’t have reference books with which to do it, so this is a big problem for us.”


Big progress for girls in disadvantaged areas

From 2014 to 2018, GPE supported the government of Mauritania with a US$12.4 million grant, with a special focus on promoting equitable access to lower secondary education for girls by building “proximity schools” in six of the most disadvantaged districts.

At the end of the GPE program, 52 new lower secondary classrooms in 13 schools had been built in these regions, making possible the enrollment of more than 3,000 girls. Overall in the six targeted districts, the program led to more than 26,000 girls enrolling in lower secondary school.

  • Aichetou Mint Mohamed Ali, 14, in class at College Riyad 5, Tarhil, Nouakchott, Mauritania. Aichetou is in class 8, the second year of lower primary.
    Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

Each new school was equipped with reading rooms, books, desks, science labs, and access to water and solar electricity, and staffed with qualified civil servants.

Awareness campaigns were carried out in the areas targeted by the program to promote enrollment of girls, with activities such as graduation ceremonies and awards to girls; sensitization training for teachers, inspectors and school directors; and the distribution of learning materials and hygiene kits to girls enrolled in the new schools.

Six new sports facilities were also constructed, one in each of the regions targeted by the program, with new uniforms for girls and the hiring of female coaches to encourage girls’ participation in sports and exercise. All these activities reinforced the importance of sending girls to school to their communities.

It is thanks to these investments that Aichetou and other girls like her are still in school.

October 2020