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Improving girls' access to education has been on the mainstream development agenda for some time, largely because of the poverty reduction potential that education offers through increasing access to economic opportunity. The long-term positive effects of education for the individual, family and wider society have also been recognised. As a study by the International Center for Research on Women confirms, "women are more likely to control their own destinies and effect change in their own communities when they have higher levels of education".
In addition, education is often seen as one of the main pathways to achieving another key development goal: girls' and women's empowerment. As the International Conference on Population and Development programme of action states: "Education is one of the most important means of empowering women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence necessary to participate fully in the development process."
However, experience has shown that the relationship between education and empowerment is not as simple as it may first appear; while education is undoubtedly a key element contributing to empowerment, the two do not necessarily go hand in hand.
Many educational programmes will focus on students' acquisition of formal knowledge and training, and will often equip them with the technical skills necessary to take up paid employment in a specific sector. For adolescent girls, this can mean being formally trained in an activity traditionally seen as "women's work", such as sewing, the small-scale production and commercialisation of food products, artisanal production or secretarial skills for the more literate.
While it is often important that girls receive this vocational training as part of their education, a more holistic approach that places a strong emphasis on enabling girls to develop a wider awareness of themselves and the external context in which they live is also vital. Having the opportunity to develop an awareness of their own social situation, as well as to gain confidence and self-esteem, means not only that girls are in a better position to deal with the multiple challenges that entry into the labour market can pose, but also are increasingly empowered to define and act upon their ambitions.
The importance of developing girls' ability to reflect on their own reality, to develop self-awareness and to build self-esteem has been recognised by the Burkina Faso branch of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (Fawe), an organisation that works to promote gender equality and education across Africa. One of the projects run by Fawe Burkina in Ouagadougou, the resource and training centre, offers training to adolescent girls from underprivileged backgrounds, who generally have a low level of formal education.
At the centre the girls primarily receive training in income-generating activities such as sewing, weaving and soap-making, as well as in non-traditional activities such as plumbing and mechanics. To complement this, they also participate in life skills and awareness-raising workshops, which include children's and women's rights, as well as on reproductive health and – importantly for their chances of being engaged in remunerated activity – basic maths and French language courses.
Earlier this year the manager of the centre, Absétou Lamizana, decided to further expand the life-skills element of the training programme, in response to an increasing recognition of the importance of self-esteem for the personal and professional development of the trainees. She explained: "Lack of ambition, of self-confidence and self-esteem are challenges faced by the girls, and are linked to a deeply-rooted culture of gender inequality and traditional attitudes towards the role of girls and women. This creates an atmosphere in which they have very little confidence in themselves and underestimate their capacities."
A partnership was developed with another local NGO, Génération Butterfly. which designed a workshop series tailored to the situation of the girls enrolled at the centre. Ibrahim Kaboré, the director of Génération Butterfly, noted that the trainees are also deeply affected by their less privileged socio-economic background, viewing themselves as inferior to other adolescents of their age, which results in an inability to value themselves and the products of their work. "Our self-esteem workshops help them to free themselves from their past and think more about what they are going to do today so that tomorrow can be better. Somebody who does not have confidence in themselves cannot easily act to improve their future," he said.
During the workshops another important element was revealed, which can be seen as a misunderstanding about the role of NGOs vis-à-vis the lives of adolescents from less privileged backgrounds. "It became clear that those living in poverty had become accustomed to a culture of receiving free services, which meant that the girls sometimes engaged in training because they felt it was expected of them, rather than because they were personally motivated to change their lives by learning professional skills. They saw their enrolment at the centre as a consequence of being poor, and this was also damaging to their self-esteem."
It is not easy to overcome the effects of a lifetime of poverty and marginalisation. Despite this, Fawe Burkina are committed to working to further develop holistic "life skills" training, which aims to ensure that on completion of the programme trainees are in a stronger position to make informed choices about their lives and act on previously unthinkable ambitions.
While it is important not to lose sight of the huge challenges many will face while trying to become engaged in economic activity, leaving the centre with a reinforced self-belief means they have already overcome a huge hurdle. As a result, they will be better able to control their own destinies and participate more meaningfully in development – an aspiration for the adolescent girls leaving the centre and development practitioners alike, and which is firmly rooted in the notion of empowerment.
Lamizana summed up this approach: "In our view, education must be reinforced by the development of self-esteem to lift girls from the status of inferiority in which society confines them. Similarly, without education and without self-esteem there cannot be empowerment. All of these elements go together."
Abigail Hunt was gender adviser at theSecrétariat permanent des organisations non gouvernementales, an umbrella body of national and international NGOs working in Burkina Faso. She takes up a post at a UK NGO this month and tweets as @abiehunt.
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