(August 2014) Burkina Faso has made enormous progress in education since 1960, when the country gained independence. The primary-education rate has gone from almost 7 percent in 1960 to more than 81 percent in 2012/2013. Progress has been made in reducing gender inequality, with nearly equal female and male primary-education rates. The progress seen especially in the last decade may be attributed to the Ten Year Plan for Development of Basic Education, put in place from 2002 to 2011. Important efforts still need to be made to attain universal primary school education.

Statistics from the 2006 national census of population information on children's demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and the households in which they live show that the national completion rates for different levels of schooling in Burkina Faso hide disparities: the low school enrollment of girls compared to boys, of children in rural areas compared to urban areas, of children in poor households compared to privileged households, of orphans compared to those who are not, and of handicapped children compared with nonhandicapped children. Geographic disparities are particularly important. Living in a rural area, for example, is more damaging to a child's schooling than is being a girl. Being an orphaned girl without both parents and living in a rural area considerably limits one’s educational opportunities. Similarly, a handicapped girl living in a rural area faces major obstacles to education.

At the national level, regardless of residence, orphans attend school less regularly than nonorphans. Moreover, as has been observed in several studies about Africa, orphans without a mother are slightly less likely to go to school than those without a father. Regardless of region or a child's age, the school enrollment of orphans is lower than that of nonorphans, except in the Center-North where the difference between orphans without a father and others is not significant.

In contrast to school enrollment, an indicator based on a fixed point in time, is the school life expectancy (SLE), a synthetic measure that accounts for enrollment conditions at one point in time and also in the past. The SLE estimates the number of years that a child could hope to spend in the educational system if he/she were subject to the age-specific school enrollment rates observed in a given period. The national SLE for Burkina Faso in 2006 was 5.5 years, which is very low and below the six years needed to complete primary education. As this number also includes grade repeaters, a child entering school in Burkina Faso in 2006 would not (on average) complete the primary school level.

This national average reflects important gaps between the sexes, place of residence, social classes, and regions (see table). At the national level, regardless of household type and region, girls spend less time in school than boys do: Their school life expectancy is 4.9 years, compared to 6.1 years for boys.

School Life Expectancy by Region and Gender, 2006

Total Boys Girls
Burkina Faso 5.5 6.1 4.9
Boucle du Mouhoun 4.2 4.6 3.8
Cascades 4.7 5.3 4.1
Centre 11.9 12.0 11.1
Centre Est 4.7 5.2 4.2
Centre Nord 3.9 4.5 3.2
Centre Ouest 5.5 6.4 4.7
Centre Sud 5.3 5.8 4.9
Est 3.2 3.6 2.8
Hauts-Bassins 6.3 7.0 5.6
Nord 5.5 6.5 4.6
Plateau Central 4.7 5.3 4.2
Sahel 2.2 2.4 2.0
Sud Ouest 4.3 4.8 3.8

Source: Jean-François Kobiané and Moussa Bougma, Recensement General de la Population et de L'Habitation de 2006 (Ouadougou, Burkina Faso : Ministry of Economics and Ministry of Finance, 2009).

Explanatory Factors

Social and cultural factors contribute significantly to low levels of schooling among girls in Burkina Faso and generally in sub-Saharan Africa. Traditional concepts of male and female roles influence family and community investments in children's education. Boys are oriented toward activities outside the domestic sphere and as future financial providers, and will have the advantage of being sent to school, a potential avenue for salaried employment. Girls are more confined to domestic activities. In addition, in the majority of sub-Saharan African societies where children live with the father, the wife is generally a perpetual "stranger" that marriage has brought into her in-law's household. Marriage practices treat women as property. On one hand, when a woman leaves her husband for another man, the latter must make reparations to the offended husband and pay for all or part of the marriage settlement that was paid for the wife. On the other hand, the woman is almost always part of the inheritance of the deceased husband. But attitudes are changing and recent studies indicate that the general population expresses more interest in investing in girls' education.

Only recently have these questions begun to be addressed in public debates, perhaps helping to explain the low school participation of certain marginalized groups (disadvantaged children, orphans, and children living with a handicap). In traditional society, orphans have been cared for through family networks. With urbanization and the challenges of economic growth, this system has disintegrated and several isolated initiatives have developed to care for orphans.

Programs for Marginalized Groups

Several initiatives have been developed in response to the situation of poor schooling among different vulnerable or marginalized groups, either at the request of the state, nongovernmental organizations, or international agencies. The ministries in charge of education have undertaken programs that aim to improve access to and retention of marginalized populations in the education system. These programs include the distribution of free school meals, school books, and a minimum set of school supplies; health and nutrition programs; improvement of girls' access to school; and teaching in national languages. To date, however, few systematic evaluations of these programs have assessed their impact.

The question of access to and reduction of inequalities in primary education has been emphasized for a long time. The challenge of higher education (postprimary or middle school, secondary, and postsecondary) has become apparent. Girls' access to secondary education is particularly compromised, not only by lack of schools but also by early marriage. Finally, in addition to the question of access, teaching methods are crucial—the quality of learning must guarantee the formation of youth well-prepared to respond to the demands of a modern and prosperous economy.

Jean-François Kobiané is the director of the Institut Supérieur des Sciences de la Population at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.


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