Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 17 October 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Access of Girls to Quality Education in Developing Countries: Discussion
We are joined by representatives from Plan International Ireland, Misean Cara, Concern and ActionAid Ireland. They are here to brief the committee on the measures in place to increase the number of girls gaining access to quality education, particularly in developing countries. The format of the meeting is that we will hear their opening statements before engaging in a question-and-answer session.
I remind members and those in the Public Gallery that their mobile telephones should be switched off or placed in aeroplane mode for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even if in silent mode, with the recording equipment in committee rooms. I also remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I welcome Mr. Paul O'Brien, chief executive officer, CEO, of Plan International Ireland, Ms Bridget Tunney of the Loreto Sisters, a member of Misean Cara, Ms Anne O'Mahoney, head of international programmes, Concern, and Ms Triona Pender, head of programmes, ActionAid Ireland. Mr. O'Brien will begin and we will watch a short video after his opening statement.
Mr. Paul O'Brien:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend. It is a great privilege and opportunity for us to make a presentation on the issue of education and to answer any questions members may have. I am the CEO of Plan International Ireland and a member of the Dóchas board.
Inequality is reaching new extremes. Significant increases in inequality of both income and wealth are leading to larger gaps between the rich and poor and men and women. This is creating serious obstacles to overcoming poverty and exclusion, and stopping us creating a more equal, peaceful and sustainable world. With women and girls over-represented in the rank of the poorest, this is also reinforcing gender inequality and blocking progress for women and human rights. In most countries, children born into rich families will go to the best possible schools and are very often privately educated. They will have small class sizes and well trained teachers and will get good results in state examinations. These students will have multiple opportunities to grow their inherited opportunities. Girls and boys born into poverty, suffering from ill health and malnutrition, arrive at the school gates already disadvantaged, if they arrive there at all. They will then struggle with overcrowded facilities that lack trained and qualified teachers, textbooks and toilets. Inequalities of income are compounded with other inequalities of gender, ethnicity, disability and geography, therefore exacerbating exclusion. Pulled out of schools before their brothers, millions more of the world’s poorest girls will continue to have their life chances hindered by an education that is all too brief.
The barriers to girls participating in and completing education are wide-ranging and intersectional. They include high rates of child and early forced marriage, early pregnancy and lack of information on and access to sexual reproductive health and rights services, school-related gender-based violence and harmful gender norms which result in discriminatory curricula, textbooks, pedagogy and educational policies. This has a significant impact on girls’ ability to complete their basic education, both primary and secondary, and to be able to participate in the labour force, have their views heard and access positions of power. On the other hand, good-quality public education for all can be a powerful engine for greater equality. Beyond boosting incomes, good education is an engine for equality in other important ways. I refer, for example, to the fact that it reduces poverty. This is because a good education makes the likelihood of higher incomes and lower poverty much greater. It boosts opportunity for all with the possibility for children from poor families to end up better off than their parents. It brings society together as schools can be places where the barriers of inequality are broken down. This will give young people the tools to go into the world and build more equitable societies. It supports democratic societies. Education offers individuals the tools to exercise their right to an equal say in respect of the structures and policies that govern their lives, which boosts democracy. It promotes stability and peace in a time of crisis. Education in emergencies and protracted crisis breaks the cycle of hopelessness, frustration and anger. It offers protection and provides a visible sign of normality for children, particularly in camp situations.
Good education has considerable power to increase equality between women and men. Education can help tackle gender disparities in wages, poverty, reproductive autonomy and political power. It can dramatically improve outcomes for women and their children. The more educated girls are, the more power they will have over their lives, particularly over when they marry and how many children they have. If all girls in sub-Saharan Africa and south-west Asia completed secondary education, there would be a 64% drop in child marriages. I also heard recently that if one could keep girls in education up to the age of 18 years, one would eliminate child marriage almost overnight. These are significant gains. The more educated mothers are, the healthier they and their children are. It has been estimated that if all girls completed primary education, there would be a 66% reduction in maternal deaths and a 15% reduction in child deaths. Good quality education has the power to challenge traditional social attitudes and ensure that girls and boys know that they are equal.
Plan International Ireland fully endorses the submission from Dóchas with which we are actively working to promote the right to free, public and high-quality education for all. After a number of years in which education was not prioritised in Ireland’s overseas aid policy, the commitment to spend at least €250 million over the next five years, as noted in the new policy for international development, A Better World, and the recent pledge at the United Nations General Assembly to support education in emergencies with €6.5 million for the organisation Education Cannot Wait in 2019, are positive signs that education is back as Ireland’s priority. We warmly welcome the acknowledgement of education as a priority in A Better World and the recommendation to increase funding for education, especially girls’ education, by this committee. However, this should not be the end, but the beginning.
We must talk about Brexit at this time. In a post-Brexit scenario there is an opportunity for Ireland. With the UK’s departure from the EU leaving a leadership gap in the context of education, Ireland can seek to fill this leadership role by promoting the importance of investing in education for global development and stability, in line with our own experience. Ireland is a clear example of the positive impact investment in universal education can have on a country’s economic and social development. As a European leader on education, Ireland could join Canada in the push for education for all, especially girls, by driving the promotion of gender transformative education as key in realising progress in fighting inequality. Investing in gender transformative education is vital to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Gender transformative education seeks to explicitly challenge and eliminate gender bias and discrimination not only in the classroom, but in society more broadly.
We are here to seek the committee’s support for the education sector in overseas aid, particularly the education of girls and the many benefits this will bring. We also encourage a focus on those who are furthest behind in order that we can we reach them first and seek to ensure that Government funding goes to public education services rather than the private sector. These points will be outlined in more detail by my colleagues.
Again, I thank the committee for the invitation to today's meeting and look forward to answering any questions members may have.
Sr. Brigid Tunney:
I am a Loreto sister and my congregation is a member of Misean Cara. I would like to give the committee an insight into some of our work and experience with girls' education in South Sudan.
To educate girls is to reduce poverty. Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and the empowerment of women.
These are the words of Mr. Kofi Annan from April 2003. South Sudan has been at war for 45 of the last 65 years. As a result, development in the country has been stifled and infrastructure is very poor. Four million people are displaced and another six million depend on food aid in order to survive. According to UNESCO, over 2.2 million children of schoolgoing age were out of school in 2015. More than half of secondary school aged children were out of school, with the rates reaching 75% for girls in rural areas.
As in many cultures in Africa, the payment of a dowry or bride price is common practice in South Sudan. Daughters are thus seen as a source of wealth for the family. Upon getting married, girls leave their birth family and become part of their husband’s family so investing in a girl’s future is seen as a waste of resources. The thinking is that it is better to marry a girl off quickly to bring the dowry in to the family. As a result, child marriage is common. A girl of 15 in South Sudan is more likely to be married with children than to be in school. Girls are taken from the classroom from as early as 11 years old to be married off. Keeping girls in school to complete their primary and secondary school education is a constant battle.
Following on a long tradition of Irish missionary education in developing countries, the Loreto girls’ secondary school in Maker Kuei, Rumbek, South Sudan opened in 2008 with 35 girls. Today the school has an enrolment of 291. It is a boarding school, providing a secure and safe environment for the girls to pursue their education. When the girls are within the compound, the risk of violence, rape and forced marriage is reduced. As I have said, keeping the girls in school is the most significant challenge. In 2011, the drop-out rate from the school was a very discouraging 68%. We decided to exploit the power of male family members to achieve our goal of full retention in education for our students. After much discussion, planning and negotiation, we introduced what we call a commitment form. This document is signed by a male family member and commits the family to ensuring that the girl in question completes the four years of the secondary cycle. No girl is admitted to the school without a signed commitment form and it is working. In 2018, the drop-out rate had fallen to 1.4%.
As I mentioned, this is a constant battle. At Christmas in 2018, two of our students did not want to go home for the holidays because they were certain they would be kept at home and married off against their will. In fact, cattle had already been given for one of the girls. Both girls opted to remain in the school compound instead. The heads of the two families were not happy with this but we managed to use the signed commitment forms to plead the girls’ cases. On the basis of the forms, the local paramount chief managed to secure a ministerial order from the ministry of education endorsing the girls' right to remain in school. This was a big step for us. One of those girls is Mary, a first year student. She had already been taken away twice by her family to be married off during the 2018 school year. She was tied up and beaten but managed to escape and returned to the school. At Christmas, we hid her in the convent until we had negotiated with her father that she could stay in school until she had completed her education. Mary will not leave the compound for another two years. She is quite restricted but she is happy to do this in order to get her education.
In the western world, the notion of a boarding school is generally associated with wealth and privilege but the Loreto boarding school in Rumbek creates a safe place for vulnerable girls to complete their education. It is heavily subsidised by donations. Another benefit of the school is the promotion of peace. Peace is fragile in South Sudan. When disagreements occur, violence is often the first rather than the last resort. Revenge killing is common and the violence often breaks down along ethnic lines. However, the girls in the boarding school come from different states and various ethnic groups and are learning that they can live together in peace. The school’s peace club and culture club play a part in this. The girls learn about one another‘s cultures and the need for all to live in harmony if the people of South Sudan are to have a future.
Misean Cara’s members warmly welcomed this committee’s February 2018 report on its review of the Irish Aid programme. We welcomed, in particular, the recommendations that the Government examine opportunities to increase funding to missionary bodies and that it review and consider an increase in support for education, placing a particular emphasis on quality education and girls’ education. The experience of the girls attending the Loreto school in Rumbek is a testimony to the power and impact of education on the individual and on society. A full 90% of our graduates have gone on to third level education. They are training in nursing and teaching, are employed with NGOs, in local radio and so on. In a social media post for Women’s Day 2017, one of those graduates, acknowledging the education received in Loreto Rumbek, wrote:
I promise you that South Sudan will have great women because of you. We are the source of strength and agents of change in our society.
These are words of hope for the fragile nation of South Sudan and particularly for the women of South Sudan. These words confirm the importance of girls’ education in forwarding women’s rights and in developing a new, emerging independent nation. I thank the committee for its support of our work. Long may that support continue and grow.
Ms Anne O'Mahony:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak at this meeting. One of the important issues in the context of a discussion on education is the need for a good quality education and I do not think any of us would be here today without having had the benefit of that. When we send our children to school we also expect that they are going to be educated in a safe environment. Data collected over many years have shown that school-related, gender-based violence has long-term impacts on the quality and uptake of education, particularly of girls, around the world. We have had our own history of this in Ireland and in the countries that Concern works in, this is an everyday occurrence. I worked in Kenya in 2011 and 2012. There was a one inch column in the local newspaper, on about page 15, that said the teacher in a school in Kisumu had fathered 11 children in one year in that school. It deserved and only got one column inch in the newspaper and nothing more, despite the impact of this on the girls' lives and future careers. At that stage, Concern began to look at school-related, gender-based violence and has since developed what we call a safe learning model.
We are rolling that model out in some of the schools and other education sectors we are engaged in around the world. We want to examine whether this model is working, and we have engaged with UCD to look at research relevant to how it is going to be tested and rolled out. That is intended to produce evidence of the consequences of school-related gender-based violence, which occurs in the very place where we expect our children to be safe, nurtured, educated and come out ready for life.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and has a literacy rate of just 67% among those aged 15 to 24. The country has suffered from war, but since that has ended there has been a major increase in registration in primary schools. Research into how much had been learned during that education period, however, from an early grade reading assessment, EGRA, found that little had been learned by those children. Delving deeper into the research revealed many links to the education environment not being a safe space, particularly for girls.
One of the themes we are raising is the situation of girls, not just in the school but in the home and community as well. I refer to following through where violence occurs and examining the impact and outcome. Our programming revolves very much around creating those safe spaces within the home, the community and the school. We are engaging with UCD to determine how we can test and gauge this model. I think that it is going to yield good results, not just for Concern but for Dóchas members in general. We would hope to be able to roll it out then globally, and observe the cost, the effect and, more important, ways in which we can address and deal with school-related gender-based violence in the future. We are also seeking evidence that dealing with such violence in schools and communities before it becomes an issue can have a long-term impact on lives and education outcomes. We hope that will be especially the case for girls and that it will allow them to take their place in the world which we would expect them to, given their level of education and the time commitment parents put into keeping their children in school over a lifetime.
A key request from us, and this links in with what Mr. O'Brien and Ms Tunney said earlier, in respect of the committee is that there be continued investment in a holistic approach to education which focuses on access, quality and especially on well-being, particularly in respect of girls' education. That is the future of not just the countries we work in, but of the world more broadly. We saw that in the video from Plan Ireland International earlier. Another important aspect is the prioritisation of supporting the education system of the poorest and most vulnerable countries to ensure those furthest behind are reached first. There should also be investment in more comprehensive research and data collection so we can better understand what needs to be done to address the issue of school-related gender-based violence.
Years ago, we would have thought that the argument for long-term quality investment in education had been made. We are still fighting that battle, however, at every forum to try to get the required continued investment. That is not just in the education sector, but in the creation of safe spaces where people can and should be learning to improve the quality of their life outcomes.
Ms Triona Pender:
I am going to speak about privatisation of education in the global south. In recent decades, neoliberal economic policies, championed by the International Monetary Fund, IMF, and the World Bank, have constrained state funding for public services. This has often triggered crises in provision, quality and access, which has undermined the realisation of rights, particularly in the global south. Indeed, ActionAid’s forthcoming research across 56 countries will show how IMF conditions and policy advice, especially on public sector wages, continue to undermine the investment in public services needed to achieve the SDGs. The crises in public financing, together with a belief that the private sector provides greater "efficiency" and cost-effectiveness, have been used to justify dismantling universal public services and handing them over to private providers or supporting public-private partnerships, PPP.
One consequence is often increasingly unequal provision, which exacerbates the exclusion of women and girls given their vastly unequal responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work. That is particularly the case where user fees are charged. Even under a PPP providing for services free at the point of use, the costs and risks to the public purse are often high, transparency and accountability are usually low, and human rights violations are often exacerbated. As NGOs committed to a human rights-based approach, we recognise basic needs as basic rights and oppose all forms of exclusion and discrimination. We regard strengthening the accountable provision of quality, universal and gender-responsive public services, financed through systems of progressive taxation, as central to the equitable fulfilment of rights. We consider privatisation and PPPs as fundamental human rights issues.
We believe it is illogical to expect that the private sector, with a mandate to generate maximum profit and increase shareholder wealth, will take responsibility for delivering quality public services and basic rights to all people, including those living in poverty. Yet this perspective, which has been long held by international financial institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and the Organisation for Economic and Co-operation and Development, OECD, is also evident in many discussions concerning the financing and implementation of the SDGs. It is also increasingly influential among some bilateral donors. I heard about an example in Ethiopia from some of my colleagues last week. It concerned a private school which expelled students whose parents could no longer afford to pay the required fees. Not only were they expelled from the private school, they were also not allowed to take any of their documentation with them, such as results from exams etc., making it impossible for them to continue their education at another school.
Our requests of governments in the north include refraining from proposing, supporting, endorsing or financing privatisation processes or PPPs in their home countries and abroad. That encompasses the roles of those governments as donors, trading partners, shareholders of multilateral development banks and in international fora such as the United Nations and the Global Partnership for Education. We also ask that those governments be explicit in word and deed about how privatisation and PPPs undermine human rights and, specifically, further marginalise vulnerable excluded women and girls by increasing violence and unpaid care and domestic work. They also reinforce risky working conditions. In addition, we ask governments to make explicit, global commitments to supporting public services. These are the foundations for advancing progress on human rights and sustainable development and it is particularly important in ensuring that no one is left behind. We equally encourage governments to abide by the newly-developed Abidjan Principles concerning the human rights obligations of states to provide public education and regulate private involvement in education.
ActionAid recently completed a study on the impact of privatisation on the right to education and it focused on seven countries, namely, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria and Uganda. I will supply a copy to the committee. The report used the Abidjan Principle as a framework for analysis and clearly states that the overall impact of privatisation has been negative. It encourages donors to support free, quality, public education for all and the development of a system-oriented approach to ensuring this is provided to the highest attainable quality for all children.
I thank the witnesses for those insightful presentations. Even though there were many disturbing elements, it was good to hear the positive actions under way because they can be built on. I acknowledge the long-term role of Irish missionaries in setting up and establishing the importance of education. That continues through their efforts and those of our very reputable NGOs working in this area. It is great to see the emphasis on quality education. I say that because so much of the focus of the SDGs was on numbers and reaching numbers in enrolment, participation and completion.
I have been very fortunate to visit schools in a number of African countries. As a former teacher, I have come out asking myself what the kids are doing there apart from getting their daily meal. It seems that that is really the only benefit they get. With the best will in the world, nothing else was happening at the schools I visited. As a result, it is great to see that quality education is key here. The question comes down to the fact that to have quality education, one must have qualified teachers who know what they are doing. Do any of our guests see any improvement in the provision of properly certified teacher education? Our training colleges are very good. I do not know whether there are connections with them that could be pursued. That is the first matter.
This is about changing attitudes. The best example of this came from one of our former ambassadors, Sinead Walsh, who worked with the President of Sierra Leone, offside and out of the public eye, to get him to agree to a project to educate pregnant girls and girls who have babies. Perhaps we could get somebody in authority who could make the difference to agree to a particular form of education. Sadly, these girls cannot sit state exams, but at least they are in school and getting an education. I do not know whether there are any more such examples. I think what Sr. Bridget has done is one example. Misean Cara must have some great negotiating skills to get the men to sign those commitment forms. There are probably lessons to be learned there. Those are the kinds of things one builds up from.
The other matter I wish to raise relates to children with disabilities. We saw some really good examples in this regard. I think Sr. Mary was in Sierra Leone with deaf children. Others were with children with leprosy and Down's syndrome and albino children, who have such a horrific time in Africa. Another thing that strikes me - I do not know what our guests think about this - is that in some countries one sees ads for the school here, there and somewhere else and what they are offering but, again, unless there is state-sponsored quality education, it is very much hit-and-miss. What Ms Pender said about private education was interesting. I do not think Ireland can talk on that because we are still very supportive of divisions in education in the form of private education.
I thank our guests. It has been very good having them here.
Mr. Paul O'Brien:
Yes. I thank the Deputy. She raised a lot of the challenges we face almost daily. The issue of trained teachers is huge. She asks whether there is progress. There is but it is mixed. I still visit schools in which the teachers are probably four or five years older than some of the students they are teaching and may themselves have completed only primary school. I have visited other schools in which the government has been a lot more serious about training teachers and ensuring there is a standard, but sometimes it is a bit of a mixed bag. It is very challenging to have female teachers in the rural areas, particularly as role models for girls going to school. One will often find that the teachers who have been naughty or bold have been sent to the areas farthest away. Rather than getting the best teachers, the students are probably getting the teachers who have misbehaved in other places. The quality of teaching is a bit of a mixed bag as a result. There is also the absence of female teachers in rural areas.
I totally agree with the point made about the language of quality and of inclusivity. Plan International Ireland has been really trying to ensure that children with disabilities gain access. One rarely sees children with disabilities in communities in sub-Saharan Africa because it is a shame to have a child with a disability. Working with the parents, the communities and the teachers, it takes a lot of convincing to get them to bring those children to school, ensuring they have the right to access education. Sometimes it may be a matter of ensuring there is a ramp at the school in order that the children can gain access. Sometimes it is a matter of ensuring that there is a toilet which can take a wheelchair or a child with a disability. Sometimes it is a matter of ensuring that one works with the teachers - we are doing that in various countries - in order that they can bring these children in and, rather than just showing them for having differences, showing that they have just the same ability as able-bodied children to access education.
Ms Anne O'Mahoney:
I will add just a little to that. Mr. O'Brien is right: some progress is being made but there is a long way to go. Until the governments of the countries in which we work begin to take seriously their responsibilities in delivering education for their populations, we will always have some of these hit-and-miss attitudes. We work in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, where once the girls reach puberty and, as Mr. O'Brien mentioned, if there are no female teachers in the school, the girls cannot continue to go to school. This immediately reinforces the stereotype of uneducated girls who are unavailable to take up positions that could be created and endorsed for them as they go through their careers. We are starting at a huge disadvantage on that basis. That whole thing needs to change substantially.
Some progress is being made in certain countries on attitude changes in keeping girls who are pregnant in school. It requires quite an upscaling of advocacy, not just from the authorities at the top but also from communities themselves, to make it unacceptable within communities for girls to be taken out of school just because they are pregnant, going back to school only after the pregnancy has finished. Until communities engage with this, it will not really change, so it is both a top-down and a bottom-up push to try to change attitudes. We are using tools such as community conversations to engage with communities and to demand first of all protection for their children and, second, that if their children happen to be abused while they are in the school system or even of schoolgoing age, that does not mean the end of their lives and their education but rather that they can go back into education. Steps are being taken on all these fronts, but the steps are very small and need to increase. We need to continue to shine a light on these issues that particularly affect girls and people with disabilities because they are, as Mr. O'Brien said, hidden groups of people. They are the people who are not getting any chances at all.
Mr. Eamonn Casey:
Speaking of the quality aspect, for Misean Cara there is definitely an emphasis on teacher training. In some locations the missionaries are very involved in actively teaching the trainers or in ongoing education. A lot of the time it is also a matter of trying to bring what are often the experiences of quality education in the missionary schools into system-strengthening through other schools. This means engaging with departments, which are very much part of the public system, in bringing in curriculum development and professional teacher development, trying to bring in school leadership and improving those things.
Regarding access, as we have discussed, we are very keenly engaged with girls and people with disabilities. In the context of the SDGs and Leave No One Behind, another group in situations such as that in South Sudan but also elsewhere is refugees and forcibly displaced persons. We are trying to keep an eye especially on an increasing cohort of people who are being displaced or who are likely to be displaced through climate crisis. Another key thing in which we are very involved is system-strengthening, including through advocacy by champions within the missionaries, but also through local authorities and tribal chiefs and trying to come up with social contracts, as Sr. Bridget mentioned. At present, we are trying to see whether we can test that and roll it out in other contexts and other countries because it may not necessarily work. We ask ourselves the question, if it was so successful there, could it be successful in other contexts? We are trying always to build in that idea of advocating for more, especially for girls and for inclusion of people with disabilities.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations and I congratulate them on the work they do. I have the utmost of respect for what the organisations do in difficult circumstances.
During the summer I travelled to Senegal. We visited some very remote parts of that country with the World Bank. I was struck by the numbers of young people who are children who were carrying children. Obviously it is the culture in Africa. Are the people in government committed to educating girls? Do they understand that there has to be a real step change in culture to try to address this issue? Do the witnesses feel that their engagement with the representatives' organisations is just tokenism, even through the type of social contract that the witnesses outlined? Are the people just tolerating the organisations or are they committed to a deep culture change?
Sr. Brigid Tunney:
That is a very good question. In South Sudan I would not think it is an issue for the President in terms of the very fragile peace agreement there. I would say that he is totally focused on that. It is more at a local level, where we are in the western lake states, that we got the ministerial decree to help us keep the girls in the school. We have spent a lot of time building relationships. It is the relationships with the chiefs, the sub-chiefs and the whole hierarchy that must be gone through. I had a conversation with the paramount chief last year when we negotiated for these girls. I asked him how seriously he was going to take it. I explained that he was negotiating for us and I asked him if he really believed in it. He sat smiling at me. I said that he was an educated man. He is educated, is a lawyer and has English. Most people in his community would not have any education. I believe that on his part he was doing this to favour us. We have a school but we also have a clinic and we employ gardeners and so on. We are very central to the community where we are. We provide a lot for the local community. Supporting us in this regard was his way of saying thanks.
South Sudan, however, is so far behind that I do not think they really recognise it, but we see the mothers changing. Mothers are the ones who push for it. Two weeks ago, 12 mothers came and wanted their daughters to be taken into the boarding school. They knew that if the girls stayed much longer in the primary school, they would be taken away to be married. They managed to get their husbands to sign the commitment form. They want their daughters to complete their primary certificate, which very few of their mothers had managed to do because they were taken out of the primary school and married off. We see a change in the mindset of the women. They will advocate for their daughters and they might have some influence. I agree with the Deputy that possibly it is a token. South Sudan is just so far behind that I do not think it is an issue yet. Many of the girls coming out from our school would be more educated than the Minister of Education in that state. In that sense, sometimes we have to be careful. The girls could be seen as a threat to the men. We have to be careful how we tread, but at the same time we are ploughing another furrow. I do not know if this has answered the Deputy's question, but it may give him some insight.
Ms Triona Pender:
It depends very much on the context. Action Aid works in Garissa, in Kenya, near the Somali border. It is very much men and it is a Muslim community. The whole idea was to try to keep girls in school and get girls back into school if they had dropped out after having children and so on. They were very much closed off to us. We are using a protocol of behaviour change that is a scientific approach to get people to change their behaviours. I will not go into the whole ins and outs of that but we sat with them and discussed why they did not want girls to go to school and why the local, community, and government leaders did not want that. They said that they had bigger issues in the community such as drought and underdevelopment. We did an analysis with them and they came to the realisation on their own that part of the reason they are so underdeveloped is because half of their population - the girls - are not in school. When one brings it around and they come to the realisation on their own that a lot of the time they are contributing to this themselves by not educating girls, then there is buy-in from them. It is a slow process. In many cases, especially at the top, there are politicians who do not have the issue on their radar as much. We have to work with the ones who will speak to us and who are willing to get involved.
Ms Barbara Scetteri:
To come back the Deputy's question, I agree with Triona that it depends on the context. I believe that the Government there understands, and especially so with the ministries of education in most of the countries where we work. They understand the importance of education and the education of the girls.
We piloted good practices that were included in the national curriculum, and now they are trickling down to every school in the country. The budget, however, is never enough. We are pushing to get at least an allocation of 20% of the national budget to education, and it is not happening anywhere. Without money the teachers cannot be paid properly and there cannot be a good school with all of the facilities needed for education. I believe that we are getting there. If we analyse the educational strategy plans across the board in the countries we work in, the majority of them are currently mainstreaming gender. Whether this is actually applied is a big challenge. They understand, but in practice there are still many challenges, especially on the budget side.
Ms Anne O'Mahoney:
Specifically on that point, Deputy O'Sullivan referred to the millennium development goals, MDGs. I believe the MDGs got bums on seats. Governments around the world made decisions to have free access to primary education for all. That was part of many of their stated goals but they never invested in developing the education that required it to happen. There were classrooms going from 10 kids to 100 kids but with no improvement in the quality. Kids came out of the school system with no better education. It requires a big sea change in realistic investment to produce a quality education.
The witnesses are all very welcome. I will follow on the conversation. The witnesses spoke of the importance of encouraging girls into education. Considering the Irish experience, it is not too different. It is only two generations away when it was the boys in the family who went on to education and the girls who were kept at home. It is not a huge distance. I remember going to school and getting the milk and famous corned beef sandwich that was curled at the side or a bun or jam sandwich. They were the supports for families. When we came into this committee at 9.30 a.m. there were children getting breakfast in breakfast clubs, which we still have in Ireland. That is important. There is not huge distance between us in terms of supports for children who are living in poverty. Consider literacy in the Irish context and the importance of literacy in the home. A mother who does not read or a lone parent, for example, with no books in the home can be important factors that have an impact on the literacy of children in many of those households. We must ask if this is a big difficulty or a big gap between the parent and the child.
Many people from a nationalist background in the North who were discriminated against in terms of housing, jobs, etc., went on to further education, got involved in civil rights and so on and demanded change. Many things have happened around education. It was stated that educated girls are less likely to be child brides. I wish to develop that point. Poverty is a big issue for many families. I do not think any parent would give his or her child away to a rich man or similar unless there was a necessity to have one less child to feed. It is not just cultural norms; much of the problem is caused by poverty. I was going to ask about the privatisation of education but the witnesses have been clear on that matter. The figures are staggering: one in five children is out of school, including 131 million girls. I ask the witnesses to elaborate on the programmes in various countries. Are they bespoke programmes taking into account cultural norms and so on in particular countries or is there a best practice approach on the basis that what works in Malawi might work in Zambia or Afghanistan? Are there various local factors that cause difficulties in that regard? There was reference to the experience in Afghanistan and the lack of women teachers there. We know the impact caused by the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as the impact of Boko Haram which targets boarding schools and the young women in them in Nigeria. The students are on the front line.
How important is period poverty? It is usually a woman or girl who is sent to get clean water. I ask the witnesses to address the importance of access to free water. It is important to have schools available in isolated areas such that people do not have to make dangerous long-distance journeys to school.
The transformative work being done by the witnesses is fantastic but it does not receive sufficient recognition. There are significant challenges. The more people who get educated, the more transformative it will be for society. I began my contribution by referring to the big changes. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked about children with special needs. Yesterday, I raised the issue of a child in my constituency who has been waiting on supports for 52 months or nearly four and a half years. If that is the Irish experience, what is the experience of children who are being left behind due to a club foot, polio or another disability in some of the countries where the witnesses work? The cultural norms are different and it may be suggested that the child is possessed. I ask the witnesses to comment on the importance of involving such children in the education system and the work being carried out.
Mr. Paul O'Brien:
The Deputy raised a large number of issues. The issue of distance from school is a significant one, particularly for girls in many rural places in Africa. There is generally a local or village primary school nearby but, as is the case in Ireland, there are fewer secondary schools and students must travel greater distances to get to them. In many cases, doing so is unsafe. We have been trying to build hostels for girls because if they rent rooms in towns, they are in great danger from men who may predate on them. As Sr. Brigid stated, we are trying to establish boarding schools. That may seem extreme, but in some cases it is probably the best way to keep girls going to secondary school safe and ensure they can progress.
The Deputy raised the issue of poverty and the significant dilemma parents may face. Ideally, solving the poverty issue would solve a major portion of the issue of the priority allocated to girls' education. In order to convince parents to allow girls to attend school, we offer to pay for scholarships, which is quite expensive but it recognises the value of girls.
I refer to the importance of mothers and the issue of girls becoming pregnant. Last year, I was in Guinea-Bissau, where I encountered this issue. I tried to remember, during the time when I was a child, who got the blame when a girl got pregnant. Generally, the boy should get the blame because he is the father, but it was usually the mother who got the blame. That was the case in Guinea-Bissau; the mother was blamed if her daughter got pregnant. Mothers were doing a truly amazing thing, namely, they took their daughters to the local clinic to access contraception because they knew the girls were sexually active and wanted to protect them in order that they could continue to go to school. That highlights the availability of contraception in local areas. It may seem extreme, but mothers tend to be far more practical and much better able to protect their daughters and ensure they can continue to go to school.
Sr. Brigid Tunney:
To pick up on Mr. O'Brien's comment on boarding schools, when I heard that we were establishing a boarding school when invited to start a secondary school in South Sudan 11 years ago, I was totally against it. I taught in a boarding school in Dublin and had a western mindset. On my first visit there, I encountered a girl in the primary school whose father was dead. She lived in a hut known as a tukel, which has a straw roof, etc., with her mother and brother. A boy armed with a rifle had broken into her hut the previous night and attempted to rape the girl but the mother clobbered him with a big stick and disarmed him. The girl went to school the next day and said nothing. Her mother came in later that day, told Sr. Orla the story and begged her to take the girl into the boarding school. I found that I had to divest myself of my very strongly held opinions. I looked at Sr. Orla and commented that it was not a boarding school; it was a safe haven or refuge for young women to get their education. Many people, including some donors, have a particular reaction when they realise we are establishing a boarding school or a hostel. We could not get funding for a hostel in a part of Kenya where the girls were living in awful conditions as we were establishing it in the area and beside our school. We eventually managed to get the money and open the hostel. It is full and those girls are getting an education. If they had to stay at home in their informal dwellings, they would not be able to attend school and would be in danger of violence, rape, etc. The hostel changed their lives completely. A similar situation pertains in South Sudan and probably in all the other countries to which Mr. O'Brien referred. The boarding schools are necessary to protect girls' safety, which is not the way that many in the West regard a boarding school.
The Deputy referred to clean water. Some of our funding comes from Irish Aid through Misean Cara. One of the most recent projects we financed was to sink three wells in the local community in order to shorten the distance women and girls had to travel to get water and increase their safety. The aid we receive is making a difference in people's lives. I thank the committee for that.
I thank the witnesses for their very interesting presentations. It is valuable for the committee to hear of the work being done. I join others in commending the great work being done, particularly in tackling low levels of school completion among girls in developing countries. It is very useful to have a spotlight on the importance of promoting girls' education and challenging gender stereotypes.
I have three points. First, I am struck by the huge number of obstacles to ensuring girls' equality of access to education in countries with enormous structural barriers such as a lack of a clean water supply, teachers or infrastructure, on which previous speakers focused. We talked earlier about the SDGs and SDG4. We were told that huge progress was made toward meeting SDG4, but that has levelled off since 2015. Progress was made in the early years of this century and the numbers and percentages of children not in school were dropping, but since 2015 there has been a levelling off. Can any of the witnesses explain why that progress has apparently stalled? I presume the reasons are multifaceted, including increasing conflicts in some areas keeping children out of school, which was touched on. Political decision-making at a macro level has also contributed to this issue. Can anyone say why that is and what we can do about it?
Second, the lack of access to reproductive and sexual health affects women and girls' education completion, which we have touched on. Mr. O'Brien mentioned access to contraception, which is hugely important, as is access to abortion, which can be vital in ensuring girls can finish their education. That is lacking in so many countries, including Ireland until recently. Our women's caucus is currently focused on period poverty, which has also been raised in many of the submissions. Some 10% of girls in certain African countries are out of school during their periods, which means missing a quarter of their education straight away. These are girls who are actually enrolled in school. We clearly need to do more on this issue. Do the witnesses have any comments on that, or are they working on any good models for it?
Finally, no one has mentioned female genital mutilation, FGM, which is another health issue for girls. I will be speaking at an event on FGM next week which is being run by Akina Dada wa Africa, AkiDwA, together with the national steering committee on FGM. Can we do more to tackle this issue through our Irish Aid programmes? It has had huge health consequences for girls and women and even raised mortality rates in some cases. What can we do in Ireland to ensure we are tackling this specific gendered issue of women's health, which is preventing so many girls from reaching their full potential?
Ms Triona Pender:
I will speak to the Senator's last point. I will also be attending that AkiDwA conference next week and I am glad the Senator brought up FGM because it is so important. It is linked with early marriage, in that when girls get circumcised, they are immediately taken out of school and married off. Some say this is a cultural issue, but it is not. It is a human rights issue. We are trying to tackle this in all the communities in which we work and where it is practised. In Ireland, we have funding for our programme on women's rights. There is also a programme in Cork through which we work with the migrant communities on FGM. More investment is needed from the Government to highlight this issue with the Irish police force and healthcare workers outside of the Dublin area, as most of these migrants are outside Dublin. When people leave their home countries, they cling to their cultures much more. One thing we do is explain to migrant communities here that we have dealt with this issue in some of the communities they are from, and that it has now been rejected and girls are back in school. We try to show them that here. That is one thing we are trying to do because FGM is so strongly linked with girls dropping out of school.
Ms Anne O'Mahoney:
FGM is huge in many of the countries in which we operate. It is not linked to religion but to culture. We run a programme in Marsabit in northern Kenya, where FGM is a big part of the communities' culture, using a tool we call community conversations in order to engage adults on the impact of the practice. We also engage the girls themselves through girls' clubs in school where they can come together and talk about the fact that they do not want FGM. Girls are then able, with the support of their mothers, to challenge community norms and say it is no longer acceptable. Religious leaders or government decrees or laws will not change this. It is about getting into the fundamentals of the communities and changing behaviours and age-old cultural practices that seem unstoppable. We must turn it around and give the power to the girls themselves, with the support of their mothers. While the grandmothers are almost the enforcers of FGM in many communities, the mothers in particular are our allies in changing this dreadful human rights abuse, as Ms Pender has said.
Conflict is a huge issue which pushes back progress towards getting girls into school. We are currently looking at northern Syria and what has happened to its education system, which was re-established eight or ten years ago when peace came to the region. That has been destroyed in one weekend and people are running all over the place. The tragedy of what is happening there is immeasurable, and we are all powerless to do anything to reverse it at this point.
On the quality of education, as mentioned earlier, there was a huge drive as part of the millennium development goals to get enormous numbers of children into school. However, when we looked at the quality of the education those children were getting, it seemed there was a lack of investment in developing quality. Children were going to school and learning nothing, and so parents pulled them out because there was no great advantage in keeping them in school. We now have to tackle and reverse that trend. A combination of factors has contributed to the levelling off of progress in getting children into school and keeping them there.
Girls' absences from school during their periods is also a huge issue, although some countries are beginning to tackle it. Some girls are staying out of school for three, four or five days a month. They are not making progress or keeping pace with their classmates. They then find they have missed too much and just give up. We must enable girls to stay in school during their periods by providing the resources which enable them to do that. That is working in some places but it is a long, slow battle.
Ms Barbara Scetteri:
I was going to make the same point as Ms O'Mahony regarding the decline in numbers and conflicts. Syria was mentioned, but there are also issues with Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Lake Chad region and other crises all around the world.
On quality of education, many parents came back to us to say we had convinced them that education was the way to go, and so they sent their children to school. However, after a few years, they say that the children are not learning anything, so it is better for them to go to the field where they can at least help the family's income. What do we say to that? The same happens with children with disability. We sensitised the community and they agreed to send their children to school, but they are not learning anything at school. Parents then question why they should make that effort. Sending children to school is important but we need to keep them in school and learning. The problem with education is that it takes time. It is not a fast solution; it takes years. One does not see results or impacts in one or two years but in cycles or generations.
There are good practices. Families must see that by sending girls to school, they can get good jobs, earn an income and help the family, as long as they finish primary or secondary school first. Another way of keeping girls in school is to give them food to bring back to their families in order that they are an added value for the family. That way, while the girls are not home and so cannot help with the field or the family's income, they are at least bringing in food every day. It is not the solution but, over time, those girls will enter the work market and start to earn, and the family will see that there is much more to school than the food. If girls can earn money and bring it home, they have added value. The problem is that at the moment, all the funding is going towards crises, which is only right as we need to save human lives. However, if we do not tackle the root causes around the world, crises will keep occurring.
We need to go back and think. Education is a solution but it will take time. We cannot expect a solution in one or two years and it will take longer. It is an investment that will not have an immediate impact but is something that will help to change the world.
I was sitting here, thinking to myself that I am of an age where I can remember very clearly the days in Ireland when girls in particular were let down and the boys had to be looked after in terms of education. In the recent past, we have had that experience, and not a very pleasant experience when we think back. We can be to the fore in demanding that greater efforts are made and moneys spent to afford people proper educational opportunities in their lives, particularly where there is abuse of females in the sense of them being second-class citizens when it comes to education, and where the boys are educated because they are seen as the ones who will get the jobs and the money.
When I was listening to the witnesses, I got frightened and I realised I am getting old because I can think back very clearly to my early teenage years, when it was acceptable that girls would not get the opportunity of going on after the intermediate certificate, and they were privileged even to get the intermediate certificate. We tend to forget our experience in this country and the tremendous value we got from changing so that people get a proper education, which made an enormous difference. We do not always appreciate it when getting older, but I begin to realise now how fortunate all of us in this country are that we had people who made sacrifices. I can remember clearly the efforts that had to be made to find the fees for secondary education, never mind third level education. People had to pay for secondary education and there were very few families in the 1950s and 1960s who could afford to pay because people were very poor and we were a very poor country.
Ireland got out of that situation, thank goodness. I believe we now have a moral responsibility to listen to what the witnesses are saying and to promote the need for awareness to give other people in other parts of the world the opportunity that we got. Many people of my vintage never got the opportunity, and women in particular did not get the opportunity. We had the vocational colleges, which gave the skills to people to have a trade and so on, but for girls in particular, there were very limited opportunities. I get frightened when I think of that now because it was very cruel. That is happening in other parts of the world. I feel the witnesses have woken me up to my moral responsibilities and that we should be out there, banging the door, so to speak, and insisting that everybody gets the opportunity.
Despite all the talk about equal rights and all of that, what is equal rights? If people do not get an equal right to an education, they have no rights. It is quite simple, when we think about it. Having lived through that period, I can appreciate the sacrifices that my parents had to make. We take so much for granted now that we have become lazy in terms of defending the rights of people to get a proper education and proper skills for work. We go on about opportunities, but if people do not have the basic skills for work, they are going nowhere.
When the witnesses speak of different parts of the world where they have experience, I get frightened that this is continuing to happen despite the wealth in the world today compared with even 50 years ago. The witnesses have awakened an awareness for everybody. I hope those in the Gallery, in particular the journalists, give this proper coverage to make people aware that this is happening next door to us and that people are suffering from a lack of opportunities. When we think of the wealth of the world, it is frightening that it is continuing.
I thank the witnesses for coming in, waking me up a bit and frightening me. There is an obligation on all of us to speak out about this. I genuinely thank the witnesses for being here and making us aware. I sincerely hope their advice and comments will get wider coverage because it is important that we are all reawakened to where we came from, certainly those of my vintage. We had very little in this country and it was a privilege to get secondary education, given the sacrifices people had to make. I thank the witnesses for attending. We tend to get lazy and take things for granted, with an "I'm all right, Jack" attitude.
Mr. Paul O'Brien:
I thank Deputy Barrett, who has made us all reminisce in terms of our experience going back over the years and how we take for granted how Ireland has invested in education, which we do.
I want to come to Senator Bacik's comment around the levelling off. I believe there are two issues, although I do not have the evidence for that. The first is enrolment. We can get a very big bang initially with enrolment, but as we have been alluding to, it is not necessarily about enrolment, and it is actually around the quality and outcomes in education, rather than just getting children into school.
The second point is that there is a big attack on education in a number of countries at the moment. People have referred to Boko Haram. The words "Boko Haram" mean "No Western education" in Hausa. We are seeing this spreading across the Sahel. The week before last, I was in Burkina Faso, a country that was called Upper Volta when I was at school. It has an Islamic insurgency coming in from two sides, from Niger and from Mali in the north. While I was there, more than 2,000 primary school were closed because of this insurgency and more than 400,000 people were internally displaced. We do not see this in the Irish media at all because it is just a tiny place that nobody really cares about. However, we have Irish Aid money there and we are working in an area that is currently not affected on a programme around inclusive quality education.
I want to pick up on one point. Investment in education is very important and it cannot be something short-term. It is not for two or three years. It has to be something longer-term. We encourage Irish Aid in the investments it has made in the Global Partnership for Education in regard to education and development, and more recently we are really encouraging about Education Cannot Wait, which is on the emergency side. For example, I heard people say recently that they left Syria for the reason that they could not send their children to school.
It was not just because it was dangerous, they could not send their children to school and quickly recognised how they would have a lost generation if they could not get their children into school. That was seemingly part of the reasoning behind people going to Turkey and other places. It was that they could continue the education of their children. While this may seem very doom and gloom in many ways, I am convinced that many parents are convinced, as are we, of the importance of sending their children to school. If given the opportunity, they can also prioritise their daughters going to school. This might take a bit more time in terms of poverty and some of the other issues about which we talked.
Mr. Eamonn Casey:
Deputy Crowe asked about best practice and standards versus unique approaches. In a way, it is a bit of both. Misean Cara has three pillars that we always try to support through members. One is equitable access, while another is a constant focus on quality. This is demand-driven because it comes from the students, especially the girls, their parents and the communities. If we improve the quality, people see that merit and are more interested in going there. Another pillar is system strengthening. Much of that is about having advocates and champions and building the relationships about which Sr. Tunney spoke. This involves low and slow work. Much of it involves advocating for girls, inclusion and people with disabilities - those furthest behind and Leave No One Behind, as the sustainable development goals asked us to do.
Senator Bacik asked whether there are particular things we can think of regarding funding and policy. One thing that is really important and that was also mentioned by Deputy Barrett is investment. The 0.7% commitment is a really important aspect that has not gone away. It is particularly important for Leave No One Behind and the farthest-behind-first agendas, which are integral to international development policy. In respect of some of the countries about which we are talking, which are really poor, along with really poor or hard-to-reach places within countries or really poor contexts or cohorts of population that are very hard to reach, their governments cannot or will not fund education. This is where ODA funding really comes into play. It is same kind of funding that Ireland got from the EU as a disadvantaged country when it was needed. It is not really aid, it is investment in people, the planet and the future, which we really need, and within that, continued commitment to untied aid, poor countries and, as we have recently seen, investment in public education and initiatives of the education cannot wait type. In terms of policy, there is a balance between putting money into multilateral arrangements, which are certainly important, and global funds and supporting some of the NGOs and the work of missionaries, who are sometimes better able to deliver for way-off-the-tarmac people, namely, those who live in rural areas and are isolated. Typically, these people are not reached by big multilateral programmes. They are usually reached by slow, incremental and committed work over many years, which is the type of work Irish missionaries and NGOs do. A policy balance needs to be struck regarding where we put our education funding.
I often wonder whether we are going backwards in some respects in the context of our global role in educating and helping others. As a result of the fact that Ireland is wealthier and we are all better off, do we have the same level of commitment we should have towards what we would term the Third World? There is a real fear that when a country moves on from being very poor , as ours has done, it might miss out in terms of the commitment it used to have? Is that commitment still there in terms of helping those who need help? Our experience is unique insofar as we can talk about things. People who are my age remember what things used to be like because we experienced them. I often wonder whether, as we grow wealthier, there is a danger that we will lose the things that made us great.
I refer to the Deputy's very apt comment. In her statement after the budget, Suzanne Keatinge, CEO of Dóchas, stated that there is clear evidence from all surveys that 94% of people support Government aid for poorer countries and aid that aims to eliminate and deal with injustice, conflict and hunger. This means that there is a very strong attachment in this country. Despite the economic challenges of the past decade, ODA has been remained at a good level under successive Governments. We would all like to see it become stronger. Ms Keatinge again called for re-engagement and the development of a roadmap with cross-party political consensus towards achieving the 0.7% of GNI target as our contribution to ODA. This committee has been a very strong advocate of that. I thank Sr. Tunney for referring to two of the recommendations we made in our 2018 review of Irish Aid whereby we asked the Government to consider additional support for missionaries. Every group that appeared before us or that we met abroad consistently cited the work of Irish missionaries in the early days, be it in the delivery of education or health services or infrastructural development in those local communities such as providing water supply or a well. We must always be conscious of that pioneering work, which is carried on so well today by missionaries, including lay missionaries, and the different NGOs working with their international counterparts.
Deputy Crowe mentioned the significant change in this country from the mid-1960s, when Donogh O'Malley introduced access to second-level education for everybody, onwards. I know that each child going to primary school in Dublin at that time got a bottle of milk and a sandwich each day. As a country person, I can say that we did not get any of that so there was even discrimination at that time against us country people, which, unfortunately, continues today.
Deputy Crowe also mentioned discrimination in Northern Ireland, be it with regard to housing, basic civil rights or education. Last night, I attended the launch of a book authored by Joe Duffy and Freya McClements and entitled Children of the Troubles: The Untold Story of the Children Killed in the Northern Ireland Conflict. The book was launched by the former President, Professor Mary McAleese, who, as usual, gave an outstanding speech. She chronicled that era during which, unfortunately, 186 children were killed in the North and the South. Some of those deaths occurred in my constituency, including a young girl from a family with which I am friends. Professor McAleese referenced the day when she and her neighbour, another young lady, got her A level results. Both of them got the necessary results that allowed them to go to university. She made the point that the fact that two young women were going to third-level education was a celebration for the whole parish of Ardoyne.
That was in 1969. Thankfully, there has been a significant improvement in gaining access to education. By 2009 the State had achieved the highest level of participation in tertiary education in the European Union. Although the figure for Northern Ireland might not be quite as high, the island as a whole has made considerable strides in that regard.
Following on from the committee's Irish Aid report which we all played a part in authoring, with our support staff, we were anxious to have an opportunity to meet our guests to lay particular emphasis on the need for high quality girls' education, an issue our colleague Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan has always raised. Violence against girls and women is another issue the committee has tried to highlight and address to raise awareness. We are conscious of the good work done by our guests and their colleagues in so many difficult areas. It is obvious that education is important to bring people out of the cycle of poverty and provide opportunities to maximise the potential of their country. We have seen what the transfer of knowledge can do. As a committee, we have engaged with Teagasc and other State agencies on the transfer of knowledge to countries where there is potential for the development of agronomy, the growth of crops and the production of food. Teacher training which was mentioned by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan may be an issue on which we can engage with the universities and colleges of education to determine whether greater assistance can be given to those who work in education in developing countries.
We thank our guests sincerely for their comprehensive, yet succinct, presentations and engagement with members of the committee. The issues raised by them are close to all of us in our work on the committee.