Gender and Education in Senegal
In Senegal, public education from primary to tertiary is available to any student who passes his or her exams. However, girls and boys do not enroll at equal rates, as evident in the most recent data available from UNESCO, displayed below. Although equal proportions of girls and boys enroll in primary school, a smaller proportion of girls than boys enroll in secondary school.
The Michele Sylvester Memorial Scholarship Fund was established in 1993 in memory of Michele Sylvester, a Peace Corps Volunteer dedicated to girls’ education in Senegal. Its purpose is to help close the gender gap in education. The scholarship provides money for the school fees for nine girls at each middle school working with a Volunteer, and for school supplies for three of those girls. School faculty members determine the original nine girls, the Volunteer chooses six finalists, and a Selection Committee picks the three winners. The Selection Committee uses a personal essay written by the candidate; an interview of the candidate by the Volunteer; the candidate’s grades; and recommendations written by a teacher and the Volunteer to make its decisions, based on the following four criteria:
Volunteers are required to ensure that the scholarship money is used for registration and school supplies, distribute certificates, and organize gender equality-focused events with the candidates. These events are designed based on information collected during the application process, and range from small showings of a motivational film produced by Peace Corps Senegal (Elle Travaille, Elle Vit!) to week-long leadership camps. This follow-up strengthens the student’s commitment to remain in school, and makes the scholarship more than just a transfer of money. Additionally, follow-up interactions give Volunteers the opportunity to assess long-term benefits of the scholarship program.
Numerous studies have been made of the impact of scholarship programs on girls’ education, most notably a 2004 paper by Michael Kremer and Rebecca Thornton of Harvard University and Edward Miguel of the University of California, Berkeley. This study examined a 2001 scholarship program in which 64 out of a set of 128 schools in Kenya were randomly chosen to participate. This scholarship was merit-based; the top 15% of female students, based on a government test, had their school fees paid and were given money to pay for supplies and uniforms. Those girls eligible for the scholarship attended school at significantly higher rates than those girls in the control group, and had significantly higher test scores. Teachers at eligible schools even had significantly higher attendance rates than teachers in the control group. This evidence suggests that real, measurable change in education is possible through programs like the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship in Senegal.
The Scholarship Coordinator continually seeks feedback from Volunteers and community members on how to improve the program and streamline the application process, especially for remote communities where completing and submitting the paper application can be a significant burden.
There is currently some debate on whether scholarships in developing countries should be awarded primarily based on merit or need. Although the ideal candidate would demonstrate both criteria, it is frequently the case that the highest achievers come from households that can afford to offer adequate support to the student. If increased enrollment is the goal, rather than just higher average test scores, students at risk of dropping out need to be supported, even if they are not the highest achievers. In the Kenya merit scholarship, local governments supported the program consistently enough that students were aware of the program and showed increased motivation as a result. However in the case of Senegal, our scholarship is supported mainly by Volunteers; it is difficult to administer the program consistently enough in many communities for it to serve as a student motivator, as a strictly merit-based award ought to do.
The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT (J-PAL) compares several education interventions in developing countries, and recent work indicates that a highly cost-effective approach may be to provide information on actual economic benefits of education to households where these benefits are underestimated. A 2008 paper by Trang Nguyen at MIT explained how a statistics-based approach was very effective in increasing attendance in Madagascar. Many Volunteers in Senegal say that undervaluation of education is a serious problem, especially for girls, but the obstacle in implementing Nguyen’s approach here is a lack of reliable government statistics on education and labor. Peace Corps Volunteers could mitigate this by doing a better job of tracking scholarship participants over time, estimating the economic returns of their education, and disseminating these statistics to other households. However as we attempt to adapt the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship to rigorous evaluation, we must keep in mind that any move towards higher standards risks abandoning the most desperate communities where the basic infrastructure to enable such evaluation is not present.