I recently visited a Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) project, VAS-Y-Fille (Valorisation de la Scolarisation des Filles), working in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The project is led by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to get the most marginalised girls, across nearly 400 schools in five provinces, into school and learning.
I visited a few schools in Equateur, the poorest province in DRC where there is no connection to the national electricity grid, a few buildings with generators that are only used in the evening for lighting until midnight (6 hours of electricity a day), no running water, poor road conditions and low internet coverage. Nevertheless, a large number of NGOs are operating across multiple sectors working to address these significant issues. My visit was to understand how girls’ education projects are making an impact across many diverse post-conflict settings in DRC, what is working, and why.
Eyes on the ground
Even though I have been to many African countries, I found the culture and way of working in DRC to be quite unique. For starters, DRC is ranked at one of the poorest countries in the world, even though the growth rate of the country’s economy is at 9.4%, as this is not distributed equally. I visited the Equateur province, where 85% of residents live in poverty, compared to the capital Kinshasa at 42%. Anyone who has visited the DRC will notice the fertile nature of this tropical country, coupled with the fact that DRC is full of natural resources. However, the fragile post-conflict environment means the majority of the population struggle to access basic social services like health and education. They also suffer from lack of unemployment and poor infrastructure. All these barriers, coupled with severe corruption practices, make DRC different to many of the African countries that are currently thriving on entrepreneurship and innovation.
I understood very quickly how important it is to have a staff member on the ground as the ‘eyes and ears’ in the field. The GEC has a ‘Country Coordinator with over 30 years’ experience working in the education sector in DRC. He has played an important role in highlighting the challenges facing the project. He has also given me, sitting in an office building in London, a much better understanding of the country and its context. However, seeing things first hand by visiting the schools and speaking to the local residents enabled me to understand the subtleties and unspoken norms of the society.
These visits greatly aided my understand of the challenges that people face on a daily basis - something we forget when we are used to working phone lines, fast internet and good transportation.
Having spent nearly two days travelling from Kinshasa to Equateur and back, there was limited time to conduct lots of monitoring visits but I did visit a few schools to get as broad a picture of activity as I could. We did not inform schools of our visit, and we also ensured there were a good representation of school types: urban, rural, state and religiously-affiliated schools. From these groups, the schools were randomly chosen (based on a list of coordinates) and we arrived unannounced. Random school visits helped ensure a more accurate picture of what's really happening on the ground.
The reaction by school directors and teachers to our unexpected visits were varied, but mostly welcoming. Not all teachers and directors were present. Some were absent because they were collecting their salaries in town - which is a normal practice in the rural schools. However, where teachers were present, classes went on as usual. I saw a good balance of boys and girls in the classes. We also managed to get a true picture of which records exist - to review the attendance, school fees and enrolment of the students.
What is success starting to look like?
The main purpose of my visit was to understand the impact that the project is making to the lives of the girls. When we conducted our baseline studies in DRC, we discovered that poverty was the main barrier for girls enrolling and staying in school. To address this barrier, the project supports the enrollment of girls by paying the school fees and providing them with scholastic materials, which has resulted in a balance of girls and boys in the schools we visited. The girls, boys, teachers and parents I interviewed were generally positive about the impact that the project is having on them. The girls are very pleased to be in school and admitted that when they are sometimes asked by parents to do chores at home, they do their best to insist on going to school – which they prefer! The Grade 6 girls that I spoke to were also determined to continue going to secondary school.
When I tested the girls, I was impressed at their ability to do complex maths problems. Their academic rankings in the class have improved from the previous year and they attributed this to the tutorial classes they have been having, which have been supported by the project.
One of the main objectives of the GEC is an improvement in learning outcomes and whilst it is good to have a standardised approach to measuring learning outcomes, it is important to appreciate other, less academic but equally important outcomes. These include improvement in life skills, such as communication, business and entrepreneurship skills, better self-esteem and self-confidence and the increase in the number of children per household that are able to learn. Given that poverty is one of the main reasons for drop-outs, the support that the GEC provides to the girls has enabled their parents to divert resources to sending other sons and other daughters to school.
The GEC is about education and learning. My visit to the schools in DRC, talking to students, teachers, parents and project staff, taught me more in a week than I could ever have learned from my desk in London. It will help me when working with team members and project staff on the ground and has given me valuable insights to share with colleagues back at base!
Soha Sudtharalingam works for the Girls' Education Challenge (GEC), supporting projects in East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Soha comes from Malaysia. She holds a PhD in Engineering and is a member of the International Development team at PwC.
Photo Credit: International Rescue Committee