GELI Stories – Bringing Stakeholders together to tackle Girls’ Education in Benin

April 2, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

In the latest of this series of podcasts with UN and other aid leaders making change happen on the frontline, I talked to Djanabou Mahonde, from UNICEF in Benin, about the power of ‘convening and brokering’ in tackling girls’ rights.

Duncan: With me is Djanabou Mahonde from UNICEF Benin, who’s done some really impressive influencing work on girls’ rights there. This is a case where there wasn’t a lot of opposition, but you had to get the government to believe and to take action. Do you want to tell us what happened?

Djanabou: Yeah, so we are in Benin, where we have three girls out of ten who are married before the age of 18, and where only 16% of girls who start primary education complete secondary school. The government of Benin and its partners are very keen to see how we can keep girls at school. So what we did is convene a number of partners around the table – stakeholders – to engage together on the side of the government in a very systematic and constructive way to be able to define solutions and, together with the girls themselves, to see how best we can tackle that issue.

What we did first was to look at the evidence, which showed why it is important to drastically reduce child marriage, because that’s one of the barriers hindering girls’ education. The evidence also demonstrated that investing in girls in the long term also has a significant impact on the economy of the country, on the GDP, on the girls themselves, on the village, and we talked the government about these findings.

Secondly, we looked at what actually is working when it comes to investing in programmes that make a difference for girls. And then to look at it in a more multi-sectoral and holistic manner. When you want to invest in girls’ education, you need to look at the barriers. Some of them are related to gender-based violence, some of them are related to the access to education, to the (lack of) facilities – water and hygiene facilities in schools. Some of them are related also to child marriage, as I was saying earlier.

As well as looking at it in a more holistic way, it’s also to give girls the opportunity to speak out and to broaden the attention to everyone. What is it that is hindering them staying in school and why is it important? We demonstrated programmes that are working and entered into conversation with the government and all the partners around the table to define a national programme that will bring everyone around the table in a coordinated way; a nationally coordinated programme to get greater results for girls at scale.

Secondly, it’s about allocating budget to those specific programmes that we identify together.

Duncan: And the budget is both government budget and aid budget?

Djanabou: Yes, both government budget and aid budget. The government is already putting some funding into programming – looking at cash transfers, looking at school feeding programmes to maintain all children including girls in school; programmes at the community level to reduce child marriage. What we are looking at here is really something that will go to scale and benefit every girl and every child in the country.

Duncan: So this is pressing my ‘too good to be true’ button… this is like a sort of development paradise where the government wants to do the right thing, it listens to evidence, UNICEF gets everybody together, everything’s aligned and Bam! You do it. Was it that good?

Djanabou: I can say that we had a government that was committed, very strongly committed to a girls’ agenda, to a children’s agenda, to a women’s agenda.

Duncan: Why?

Djanabou: Why? Because that’s the right thing to do!

Duncan: That must be nice!

Djanabou: [laughs] And then secondly we have partners who are close to the government. In the long run what we would like to have is that every child has access to school and benefits from quality education, including girls. We have a government which is committed to that and now we are working alongside the government to also make sure that sufficient programmes are defined and then sufficient funding allocated to be able to get to those results.

Duncan: I’ll have one more go at finding something negative. In Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram, there is a sector of the community which is very against girls’ education and there is a maybe the same/maybe a different sector of the community which defends child marriage. Have you not experienced any kind of backlash, any kind of pushback from those kind of groups within Benin?

Djanabou: Those groups exist and what is important is that we start to have a critical mass that is talking against child marriage, which is also looking at accelerating girls’ education, and that critical mass starts at the community level, involving community leaders, teachers, religious leaders, traditional leaders, who are ready to stand up for girls’ education and against child marriage. That’s a movement that has started and is expanding and we are working again with all the main stakeholders to amplify that, to make sure that we have zero tolerance to child marriage and then no girls married before the age of 18.

Duncan: And I suppose that gives it a kind of sustainability. You’re not just depending on a sympathetic government because then the government changes and you get a horrible backlash, right?

Djanabou: Absolutely. And what is important here is also the voice of the girls themselves. Girls who are mobilising themselves, young people, also young boys and young men who are mobilising against child marriage and who are also going out to speak to others, to their parents and also to traditional leaders, religious leaders to be able really to engage and to have that movement where everyone believes that’s the right thing to do, not to marry girls before the age of 18.

Duncan: Anything else? Any other top tips? This has been a lovely story and it’s very inspiring. Anything else you want to add?

Djanabou: What I would like to add here is really the power of partnership, to have strong people, institutions, who are ready to commit together, to define common messages independently of their different agenda or mandate, to convey the same message around the table and particularly to always put the rights of children, the rights of girls, at the centre, and be able to move together.

Duncan: Djanabou Mahonde, thank you very much,

April 2, 2024
Duncan Green


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