Oumou sits at her desk in Mali

Working toward inclusive education for girls with disabilities

Humanity & Inclusion observed the International Day of Education on January 24, by alerting Sahel countries’ governments and international cooperation organizations on the unjust exclusion of girls with disabilities from school.

Worldwide, women with disabilities are three times more likely to be illiterate than men without disabilities. The education of young girls, including girls with disabilities, is an injustice that Humanity & Inclusion is fighting against, particularly in the Sahel region, which includes many low-income countries.

In 2020, Humanity & Inclusion donors and partners helped fund 52 inclusive education projects in 27 countries in West, Central, North and East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. This work focuses in particular on children with disabilities - the most vulnerable and excluded young learners in the world - in low-income countries, both in development and emergency contexts. Humanity & Inclusion teams work to increase enrollment, participation and the success of children and young adults with disabilities in education.

The reality of girls' education in the Sahel

Few girls with disabilities attend school in the Sahel Region, which stretches through parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan.

In Mali, less than 18% of women with disabilities can read and write. In Niger and Mali, more than half of the girls enrolled in primary school do not follow through to secondary education. In Burkina Faso, only 1% of girls have completed secondary school. For girls with disabilities, they face double the challenge of obtaining an education. 

Prejudices against disability

In the Sahel, children with disabilities also face horrific levels of prejudice and false beliefs. For instance, some families see having a child with a disability as a "tragedy" or a "punishment." Children with disabilities are treated poorly and sometimes even hidden. Some people believe that disability is contagious.

According to some beliefs in the Sahel Region, the bodies of people with disabilities have magical properties. Girls with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence because some believe that sexual intercourse could bring them wealth or power or even cure AIDS.

The role of boys

A boy is considered to be responsible for the family's future income. Boys are sent to school and have a better chance of getting a paid job. It is seen as unnecessary for girls to attend school, as they are routinely confined to domestic work.

Children with disabilities are very often seen as an additional burden on the family, and girls with disabilities even more so. The costs of educating girls with disabilities are considered too high, in part because of the economic loss involved. Girls with disabilities often contribute to the economic survival of the household through begging or by participating in domestic chores.

Obstacles at school

When they manage to attend school, girls with disabilities face many obstacles. They often drop out of school early as they approach puberty, due to the family’s concern to protect them from sexual violence and early pregnancy. The lack of adapted toilets is also a cause of repeated absences and abandonment.

"I prefer to study but if my parents force me to marry, I will agree to do what they tell me to do." - Fata, blind 11 year-old girl, Mali

In rural areas, the distance between home and school is a major obstacle to schooling for girls with disabilities. For students who walk to school, long distances pose a safety risk. And the cost of transportation is often too expensive for families.

Positive experiences

In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, experiments in inclusive education for children with sensory impairments are successful. The conditions for success are based on an assessment of the child's needs and the commitment of teaching staff who are proficient in sign language or Braille.

"The first year was not easy learning Braille. I didn't feel comfortable. But now it's okay. As time went by, I managed to make friends and we learned to understand each other. I would like to go to high school in Senegal and become a lawyer in my country." - Daouda, 16-year-old girl with low vision, Mali

Importance of education

It is estimated that an additional year of study can increase a woman's income by 20%. If all adults in the world had completed secondary education, the world poverty rate would be halved.

Limited access to education leads to low participation in the world of work. In some low- and middle-income countries, the cost of excluding people with disabilities from the workforce is as high as 7% of gross domestic product.

Reducing inequalities between girls and boys in how they access education could boost the economy by between $112 billion and $152 billion each year in low- and middle-income countries.

Image: Oumou, 9, who has an amputation, sits behind her desk. She is a beneficiary of the Humanity & Inclusive Education project in Mali. Copyright: Pascale Jérôme Kantoussan/HI