Correspondents- Fatima, 13, bows her head as she talks about her dream of becoming a doctor disappearing. School has become a thing of the past.
The young girl puts aside her sackcloth bag of feed and in a trembling voice and says: “I stopped going to school two years ago. I now help my mother with the house chores and herd goats.”
And what comes next?, this reporter asks.
“Nothing” she replies. “My mother is preparing my wedding trousseau;” after she secured my engagement to my cousin, who is five years older. The wedding will take place after my 16thbirthday.
Fatima, a native of the area of Majel Bilabass in the state of Al Qasrein is one of thousands of country girls who have been denied an education at an early age despite the Tunisian law stipulating that children should remain in school until the age of sixteen.
This school-leaving epidemic intensified after the Jan.14, 2011 revolution when 100,000 students dropped out of school during the 2012/2013 scholastic year. The year before, 83,000 had dropped out.
The school dropout trend is concentrated in the rural and isolated areas as in the case of the village where Fatima is from.
Fatima went to Kheir el Deen Basha Secondary School for boys and girls between the age group 12-16. The school is in the Majel Bilabass area: 400 kilometres off the capital Tunis.
In 2010, the number of students registered at the school reached 480, 36 of which dropped out, with girls constituting three quarters of the dropout rate. The rate decreased during the following year to constitute half the amount, although it was still considered high. It is feared that illiteracy among females is making a comeback in this somewhat secluded rural area.
School headmaster Omar Al Mansouri, who has been running the institution for almost nine years, confirms that there have been many female school dropouts despite his attempts to put an end to this.
Mr. Al Mansouri holds the old regime responsible for what he calls the policy of “media inflation” that it used to show its interest in the education sector without actually dealing with issues. Laws did not deal with root causes forbidding the parent from withdrawing his child from school before the age of sixteen.
Mr. Omar Al Mansouri’s comments were refuted by a former ministry of education official (who wished to remain anonymous); he says that the old Tunisian Constitution (for the year 1959) included in its acts the right of all Tunisians (male and female) to education. With reference to its education regulations, the second amendment to the law, passed on November 4, 1958 stipulates that all children between the ages of six and twelve shall receive compulsory education, which is free at all levels.
The former official adds, “All later amendments upheld this law and expanded upon it.”
The education reform law for the year 1991 stipulates that any Tunisian citizen who does not enrol his son/daughter in a primary educational institution or withdraw him/her before the age of 16 shall be fined a sum of about $120. As per the article, if he does not comply “ the parent will be punished in accordance with the code of law.”
Since the code does not include any punitive laws for those who remove their children from educational institutions prior to the age of sixteen, this has become a point of contention for the last two decades.
The clerk of the General Union for Secondary Education, Sa’ad Al Yaqoubi confirms that, in the past decade, the ministry has not registered any punishment against offending parents who had removed their children from school before the legal age.
Al Yaqoubi adds that the ministry of education “ had been negligent in its duties to monitor these offences and follow them with legal measures; this has hampered the country’s attempts at improving education levels.”
In light of this, a year ago, the Union for Secondary Education, in cooperation with a number of human rights organizations, created the “Education Reform Law Coalition,” which they hope will “study the causes for school dropouts and ways to put an end to this.”
Despite repeated attempts by this reporter to get a response, the ministry refused to comment on this matter.
Omar Al Mansouri, headmaster of Kheir el Deen Basha Secondary School explains that the administration usually follows up with parents who have removed their children from school to try and bring them back and if efforts fail the files are sent to the supervising authorities.
The school administration has been successful in bringing back five students. Al Mansouri mentions two of these cases: the first a young girl (Y.M.), 14 years, whose step mother had forced her to leave school in order to take care of her siblings. Her father was contacted last scholastic year and persuaded to return her to school after threatening him with the implementation of law; she is now excelling in her studies.
The second case is that of a young girl (S.K.) who had stopped coming to school during the second trimester of the last academic year despite her good grades. When her father was contacted he said that it was her wish to do so. When the matter was further investigated, her relatives admitted that the father was planning to marry her off.
Despite succeeding in bringing her back to school for a short period of time, her father alter withdrew her again and quickly arranged her marriage so she could not return.
The number of primary students in Tunis for the current school year is one million 45 thousand taught by 63,000 teachers.
As for secondary and high school levels, the number of students is almost 900 thousand. There are 6000 educational institutions, three quarters of which are primary schools with the rest being secondary and high schools.
Out of 100,000 school dropouts for the 2012/2013 academic year 45% were girls and 83% of them came from rural and poor areas.
The primary cause for leaving school in the rural and isolated areas is poverty, which forces young girls to abandon their dreams taking them from school rooms to the fields and pastures, earning an income, whereas the males continue with their education.
Fatima, for example, works from six in the morning until noon, gathering vegetables to sell at the weekly market. Her tiny hands are black from digging the soil.
Her mother says: “ my daughter was an excellent student but she had to sacrifice her education to combat the poverty we face so that her brother can continue his studies; we cannot educate both of them.”
Families in the Tunisian countryside rely more on girls as helping hands, working in the house and herding cattle and sometimes sending them to work as domestic help in wealthy homes in the capital.
As with Fatima, the village of Majel Bilabass witnessed the end of her friend’s dream; 13-year-old Sabrine also wanted to continue her education.
Najah excelled in her studies, whereas her twin brother Saber failed. However, her father took her out of school so that her brother could continue his education. Sabrine ended up working in the fields to secure an income for her family.
Official statistics show that poverty levels in rural and marginalized settled areas reach 65% — whereas it is calculated at 15.5% in the country as a whole. In addition to a lack in funds, these areas are usually governed by a patriarchal mentality, which not only turns females into breadwinners, but also forces them to stay at home lest they be accosted. Parents voiced their opinions by saying that it was safer for girls to remain at home.
They found in the lack of school buses an excuse to prevent girls from going to school saying there was danger on the route when they came back home in the evening.
The fact that houses were situated far from each other in the rural areas and not so close to the schools meant that the young girls were forced to walk several kilometres every day.
According to the Ministry of Education, in some cases, the distance from home to school for some students was almost two and half kilometres. That and the elements made it very difficult for girls especially to go to school.
Mr. A. S. from Majel Bilabass says that the reason he stopped sending his fifteen-year-old daughter to school was due to a lack of dormitory facility for girls at the Kheir el Deen Basha Secondary School. He did not have the means for an alternative private rental for his daughter and there was no regular public transport.
Mr. Sa’ad Al Yaqoubi says that one of the main causes for leaving school was lack of cohesiveness between the educational institutions and local social environment. Schools do not deal with students in accordance with their background and do not show interest in the difficulties they may face.
The increased influence of the Salafi movement in Tunisia after the revolution, especially in the rural areas, is an added factor. It has made life even more complicated for girls and has contributed to the school-leaving trend.
The Salafists call for the segregation of males and females; this is currently not possible in Tunisian educational institutions. As a result many families withdrew their daughters from school.
For many adherents of the Salafi philosophy, girls complete their education requirements with the end of their basic learning when they reach the age of twelve.
By then they are considered of “mature age” and are ready for marriage. That was the case with 13 year-old Zeinab.
Zeinab is a native of the countryside of Manzel Shaker in the state of Sfaqs; she started wearing the niqab from the age of ten and dropped out of school at 110. She says: “I am now learning the Qur’an at home with my sister Reem who has also left school as this is what is stipulated in our religion; a woman should stay at home away from the eyes of men.”
Whereas Zeinab seems accepting of her situation, 16 year-old Duha from Majaz Al Bab in the North Western Tunisian state of Baja considers what happened to her “a real tragedy.”
Zeinab continues, “My father has destroyed my only dream which is to continue my education like my school mates. I now sit alone between four walls; my family is trying to find me a husband who will take me in as they put it. I want to have my own life to do things the way I want but I am unable to disobey their wishes.”
Zeinab’s father (T. S.), an adherent of the Salafi philosophy, explains his actions by saying: “I have not shirked my responsibility towards my daughter; I provided her with enough education to become a good mother and that is the most important role she was created for.” He also considers the idea of a female staying at home is protection for her honour and “in line with the examples set by the Prophet’s wives.”
Despite the sorrow that is evident on his face at such actions, Education Union Clerk Sa’ad Al Yaqoubi believes that the situation has not gone completely out of hand due to the limited number of Salafists in Tunisia (almost 20,000 out of a population of 12 million according to official sources). He does warn however that not trying to find a solution to this crisis in its early stages could lead to it growing.
Thousands of girls leave school and their childhood friends behind to take on adult responsibilities and a life full of hardship, which has a negative effect on them physically and psychologically. According to the sociologist Hadia Khader, this life turns them into unprepared young mothers. She confirms that the highest rate of school leavers is between the ages of 11 and 15 and is from rural and marginalized areas, which constitutes a danger to society as a whole.
Khader adds: “ a young girl who does not finish her education is ignorant of the basic human role and how it contributes to society; she is unaware of her own dignity and development and cannot improve or grow nor invest her time in good use. This can have a negative effect on the way she brings up her children and in dealing with the behavioural changes of adolescents. In addition to not knowing how to take care of her self and her wellbeing with such matters as early detection of disease.”
Despite the fact that more than two years have passed since the formation of the Foundational National Council which was set up after the legislative elections, following on from the January 14 revolution, the issue of school dropouts and the improvement of rural women has never been raised at any of its general sessions. All have dealt with political issues between the government and the opposition.
According to the minutes of meeting from the Foundational Council, its Education Committee has not passed any new legislation and has only met four times in the past two years in order to hear from a number of officials with nothing happening
Official reports estimate that the school dropout rate costs the state treasury 345 million dinars ($207 million), that is 6.7% of the Ministry of Education’s budget.
However in the long run these losses will run deeper and not only estimated financially. The Arab Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (AECSO) is a specialized regional organization based in Tunis. At a seminar organized by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, AESCO expert Najeeb Ayad said “ Tunisia today finds itself at a point of contention with regard to the issue of female school leavers as society as a whole consists of both males and females and cannot be divided.”
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and coached by Hanan Zabees and Chadia Khdeir.