Uniforms After Clean Water Keep Girls Out Of School

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I used to think  school uniforms were a good thing. Maybe they are in higher income countries where students socio-economic situations vary greatly and uniforms are seen as “leveling”.

Maybe they do help children focus on academics, increase attendance, create a sense of community, save time in the morning and improve discipline (although there is ample evidence that similar results can all be achieved in many other ways).   

But in Africa and Southeast Asia neocolonialism (the system used by former colonialists to maintain political, cultural, religious and ideological power through continued exploitation) continues to cause great harm in a shit load of ways. One of which is the ongoing use of school uniforms.

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In 2005 UNICEF published the “Humanitarian Action Swaziland Report” and concluded that the continued neocolonial requirement of school uniforms “remains a stumbling block to universal access to education.” Similar studies have been conducted in countries once ruled by foreign powers all over Africa and Southeast Asia and have discovered the same results.

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.“.

U.N. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

50% of the world lives on $2.50 a day. When a family is that poor all of that $2.50 goes to pay for shelter, food and only the most necessary clothing and although more and more countries are offering free primary education the burden of paying for the uniform remains on the family. One uniform can cost up to a week’s income for many families. One single uniform to wear everyday. Many of these families are among the 2 billion people in Africa who don’t have access to clean water. That means no way to wash themselves or their uniforms.

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Not many families can afford uniforms for all of their children. Because of this (and the fact that it’s primarily girls who trek miles every day to collect drinking water, who are responsible for chores and sibling childcare, and who will at some point have to decide between paying for  menstrual products or school) girls are disproportionately being denied their right to an education. This is a fucking tragedy, and a needless one.

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If uniforms weren’t required, many more families could afford shoes for their kids. In rural areas of Kenya (where although uniforms are not technically/legally required children are often sent home, belittled by teachers and other students and otherwise punished if they can’t comply) up to 78% of students wear a uniform but only 5% have shoes. Shoes are critical because they protect children from diseases like  podoconiosis and tungiasis, also known as nigua, pio, bicho de pie, pique, or sand flea disease. Shoes are life saving as protection from tetanus, snakebites, malaria and worms. Imagine having to decide whether to educate your children or buy them shoes.

In an effort to understand and address this problem, the NGO Poverty Action Lab  started to distribute free primary school uniforms and see if it actually has an impact on girls’ lives.

Part of the study included a large group of 6th-grade girls who were randomly divided into two groups. One group received free uniforms for two years, and the others continued to have to pay for theirs.

Following up with the girls and their families five years later, researchers were able to document the results. The girls who were given a free school uniform were 17% less likely to have dropped out, 20% less likely to have been married, and 17% less likely to become teenage mothers.

The antiquated neocolonial school uniform requirements are a huge barrier to an education for girls (and boys, but way more often girls). So while numerous studies have shown a correlation between uniforms and school attendance in countries and communities where uniforms are free and/or affordable, this benefit does not translate in places where uniforms are required and unaffordable.

If schools in Africa and Southeast Asia stopped clinging to the belief that a child’s education can only be achieved using the colonial model which includes among other things mandatory school uniforms, it would be a game changer for millions of young minds. Children show up and learn when they aren’t hungry, exhausted, and diseased.

Until these countries and cultures are able to eschew the timeworn neocolonialist customs that deny children (especially girls) the opportunity to escape poverty, delay marriage and pregnancy, and instead give them the skills to earn a sustainable income, true gender equality will remain a dream and not a destination.

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There are multiple organizations that provide free/low cost uniforms to students in developing world countries and they are always in need of donations. If this issue speaks to you please visit  Global Giving Dress 4 Success and Signs Of Hope Africa to learn more about this problem and how you can help.


Article by VERVE Founder & CFO (Chief Feminist Operative) Anna Quick-Palmer

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