Thoughtful comment on gender and politics

Education, education, education: a dispatch from Benin

I’m sitting in a hotel in Cotonou in Benin, waiting for my flight back to London. I had hoped to blog every day in Benin but in 5 years (the last time I was here) the internet has not got any faster – it’s taken about 10 minutes just for me to load this page!

As many readers will know I’m Trustee of a charity called Youth Action for Change International (YACI). It supports the education of orphans and vulnerable children living in Porto Novo, Benin. Having been to Benin before, I know how much need there is here and how many problems people face. However, as the years have passed since my last visit my memories have faded and I realise I’d forgotten just how much of a battle it is here for people to access things which every day I take for granted.

Of course the statistics about Benin tell a bleak story: about two-thirds of children finish primary school, and just a third of boys and less than a quarter of girls finish secondary school (UNICEF). Statistics are vital indicators but it’s the stories of the families I’ve met that have touched me during my stay so I wanted take this time to share one with you:

I met Jean* at home with his father and older brother. He lives in a secure dwelling built with bricks and cement, providing decent protection from the harsh sun and unforgiving rains here. However, inside it’s dark and dirty and there are piles of bread on the floor and tables. Jean is 13  years old and lives with his 4 siblings on the outskirts of Porto Novo. He is a shy boy so his father did most of the talking… until we got onto the subject of football. While he enjoys history and geography, Jean’s dream is to play for Chelsea one day.

Jean’s father has trouble walking as he’s injured one of his legs, despite this he used to have a metal work business. He takes me out into the yard and shows me where he used to build doors for people’s homes. Without access to credit he couldn’t buy the materials to keep the business going and he had to close. The family had recently had more bad luck; Jean’s mother had fallen ill and had gone back to her village to be cared for by her parents. She used to sell bread in the street (which explained the loaves in the house) but had to stop since getting sick. Because of his injury Jean’s father can’t take over the bread business so there’s no money coming in. Jean’s family could just about afford the school fees before, but didn’t have the funds to pay for books, pens or a uniform, and without these children don’t go to school, either out of shame or because they get told off by their teachers.

YACI’s support ensures that Jean stays in school and has all the right equipment for his classes. While the family is facing huge adversity they know that they do not have to sacrifice their son’s education and that means a great deal to them. We can’t promise Jean he’ll play for Chelsea but we can ensure he gets the education he needs for a more secure future, and that means a huge amount to me too.

*All names have been changed.

I am grateful to Comic Relief who financed my trip to Benin. They have recently awarded YACI with a Research and Development Grant which we are using to do a thorough needs assessment and ensure we are supporting the most vulnerable children in the best possible way.

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