FAWE's gender-responsive school model: Gender equality and girls' success in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Mali


Education is a fundamental and inalienable right for every child, but girls in some parts of Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, often face significant obstacles. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 40% of girls complete lower secondary education, and 80% of 10-year-olds in West and Central Africa are unable to read and understand simple text. Girls who are able to attend school face sexual and gender-based violence, reproductive health issues, the weight of social norms in their communities, and the challenges of poverty.

The three-year research project (2020-2023) conducted by the consortium of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), the Research Laboratory on Economic and Social Transformations (LARTES) and the Paul Gérin-Lajoie Foundation (FPGL) on FAWE's gender-responsive school model explores the effectiveness of this innovative model in four countries: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, and Senegal. 

image of ministry of education
Photo credit : LARTES

A multiplicity of obstacles

Each of the four countries presents different challenges to girls' education. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, is a country where inequalities between boys and girls are among the highest in the region. While the attendance ratio is 87 girls to 100 boys at primary level, it drops to 54 at upper secondary level. The same trend can be observed in Mali. Some of the reasons for this gradual drop-out include the financial costs that push families to favor boys' education, violence against girls, the distances to be covered to reach school, which can be long and dangerous, early marriage and pregnancies, the weight of tradition, and religious considerations that push girls to stay at home.

Senegal, on the other hand, has implemented a number of measures to promote girls' education: as a result, girls are more present in primary school than boys. However, it has been observed that sexual violence against girls increases as they progress through the school system: while 53% of sexual violence in primary school was committed against girls, this percentage rises to 90.5% in upper secondary school. Retaining these girls is therefore a real challenge for Senegalese schools.

Furthermore, educational facilities, teaching materials and teaching methods are often ill-suited to the specific needs and experiences of girls. They are also often assigned domestic chores while boys’ study, and teaching materials are imbued with sexist stereotypes. In fact, according to the study, only 23.2% of teachers have access to gender-responsive teaching materials. 

A gender-responsive school model from FAWE

FAWE has developed a holistic, gender-responsive school model specifically designed to support girls' and teenagers' access, retention and performance in school and to create an environment where girls can thrive.  The model is broken down into five dimensions (management, pedagogy, learning materials, school environment, community involvement) which are embodied in the following 8 components: 

  • a gender-responsive management system, to train principals;
  • gender-responsive pedagogy, to train teachers;
  • incentives to encourage girls' participation in STEM;
  • scholarships for girls in need;
  • a youth empowerment program, especially for girls (TUSEME clubs);
  • a sexual maturation management program;
  • a gender-responsive school infrastructure and;
  • adapted, gender-responsive learning materials. 
    girls in a classroom
    Photo credit: FAWE

The research project carried out by the consortium targeted ten schools in each of the four project countries. Some schools are already benefiting from the model; in others, it was introduced at the start of the research. The research was based on both a quantitative component (questionnaires for principals and teachers, as well as for pupils) and a qualitative component (semi-structured interviews, focus groups with pupils and parents' associations, life stories of former beneficiaries and observations of school environments and classrooms). The project has three specific objectives: 

  1. to collect and analyze evidence on the model;
  2.  to assess the impact of its components on the enrolment, retention and success of girls in school;
  3. analyze the conditions for scaling up.

In Senegal, the research revealed that 81.6% of beneficiary pupils felt that the model had a positive effect on keeping them in school. 86.8% of school heads and teachers perceived the model as effective. In Mali, following training in gender-responsive pedagogy, nine out of ten teachers promote equal participation and opportunities for girls and boys in the classroom: indeed, 84.4% of girls feel free to express themselves in class. 

Moreover, in Senegal, a number of community initiatives have been launched to combat early marriage, eliminate teenage pregnancy, reduce girls' domestic work, and encourage parents to send girls to school. In Mali, 79.2% of schools surveyed have a gender-responsive administration. Communities have also been made aware of the importance of getting girls into school. Mobilization has been a little more difficult in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where decision-makers and educational players still need to be made aware of the approach and convinced of its benefits. In Burundi, school principals have made a strong commitment to gender-responsive teaching (100% in the first cycle, 93.3% in the second cycle). However, the application rates for gender-responsive teaching methods are 50% in the first cycle and 32.7% in the second.

Across all countries, TUSEME clubs seem to be making a real difference where they are implemented. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 81.5% of girls consider this training to be the element of the model with the most positive effect on their schooling. In Burundi, only 50.7% of schools surveyed had clubs, but those that did had a participation rate of almost 70%. 

The research thus acknowledges that the model offers both impact and hope for a lasting transformation in the educational trajectory of girls. It initiates a dynamic of integration of gender-responsive pedagogy, in particular by encouraging girls to intervene in the classroom, and generates an improvement in learning conditions and leadership development. It also raises community awareness of the benefits of sending girls to school.

Nevertheless, the effective implementation of the model comes up against structural and socio-cultural obstacles. For example, the under-representation of women in decision-making bodies, at less than 10%, and the persistence of socio-cultural norms contribute to maintaining gender inequalities within schools, fostering the perpetuation of discriminatory practices. In addition, communities may sometimes show resistance to gender-related concepts and express apprehension about sex education programs. 

The reports make a number of recommendations, including the integration of a gender perspective into the official curricula of ministries of education, the strengthening of women's participation in school decision-making bodies, the provision of gender-responsive teaching aids, the creation of girl-friendly sanitary infrastructures with access to water, and the distribution of sanitary towels at school. In addition, it is recommended to guarantee catering facilities for pupils, infrastructure for science teaching, more rigorous training programs for teachers, preferably at national level, as well as continued awareness-raising efforts among pupils and parents. The encouragement of community involvement and the creation of favorable family environments are also advocated, as is the mobilization of the community to ensure safety on the way to school. Finally, it is imperative to seek funding to further develop the components of the FAWE model and ensure its sustainability.

To conclude, FAWE's Gender-Responsive Schools model is a real innovation for enrolling, retaining, and succeeding girls in school. The model's effectiveness has been proven through research carried out by the consortium. However, its implementation can come up against structural and socio-cultural obstacles, and sometimes requires creativity to get around community constraints. The model is a great first step towards girls' education - now that the obstacles have been identified, they can be addressed more effectively