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Empowering Women in Iraq through Literacy Program

To commemorate International Literacy Day, USAID/Iraq, through its Community Action Program,  handed out 1,200 certificates to the graduates of women literacy program called “Women’s Awareness and Inclusion Program (WAI)”.

USAID’s Women’s Awareness and Inclusion (WAI) program, implemented across the southern provinces of Basra, Dhi Qar, Muthanna and Mayson, empowers women through literacy and social inclusion programs. With over 23,000 participants since 2005, USAID supports women in shaping Iraq’s future by providing one-year basic literacy and numeracy trainings which are supplemented with educational modules on cultural and social awareness topics, such as democracy and governance, human and women’s rights, needs identification and prioritization – vital tools for women, as they work to become powerful advocates and leaders in their communities.

Elderly student takes her final literacy exam to qualify for graduation. Photo Credit: Mercy Corps

Many women in Iraq are unable to independently read and complete forms, do basic arithmetic and money management, help their children with schoolwork, and participate meaningfully in basic household and community decision-making.  The official government statistics say that 29.2% of Iraqi women living in rural areas, between the ages of 15-49, have never received any basic education and are unable to read and write.  This statistic does not reflect the number of women and girls who were unable to attend school in the last six years due to violence and insecurity in their communities, or those who received some schooling, but dropped out due to cultural, economic or security restraints.

As a result of their lack of education, Iraqi women struggle to engage meaningfully with their communities, advocate for their needs and those of their families, obtain employment, utilize public services and participate in the governance process. Their voices are often lost in elections,  and in conversations about social and political issues and they are practically excluded from helping to shape today’s Iraq. In order to truly engage in community and in national decision-making, Iraqi women need the knowledge and skills learned through basic education.

To begin responding to this need, USAID, together with its implementing partner Mercy Corps, piloted its Women’s Awareness and Inclusion Program (WAI) in Maysan governorate of south Iraq in 2005, as part of its Community Action Program (CAP). Beginning as a “Literacy Campaign for Women”, the small program was met by increasing demand from women and community leaders and continued to expand in response to this overwhelming level of interest.

Today, over 10,000 women and teenage girls are enrolled in the program through 226 WAI centers across the southern governorates of Basra, Maysan, Muthanna and Thi Qar. The WAI program provides women with the basic literacy and numeracy skills they need to become involved in their communities and engaged in the governance process. Community support for the program has been strong, and provincial-level Departments of Education have contributed to the initiative through the donation of school facilities, textbooks and supplies.

In addition to empowering beneficiary women, this program provides an opportunity to work with and build the capacity of women-led and women-focused NGOs in South Iraq, helping them to provide quality services to women.

Benefits cited by participants include the ability to read and write without assistance, negotiate better prices in the markets and assist their children with schoolwork. Participants also reported higher levels of self-confidence and independence as well as an increased ability to participate in household decision-making. This information has been obtained through beneficiary interviews, small-scale surveys and periodic focus group discussions with participating women.

50 Years of Achieving Real Results in Childhood Literacy

For the past 50 years, USAID and a growing number of partners have been working to improve the quality of education in developing countries with an emphasis on boosting child literacy.  In February of 2011, USAID launched its evidence-based education strategy – shifting the focus of global education toward achieving real results in childhood literacy, higher education and equitable access to schooling for children in conflict and crisis environments.

From the USAID photo archives, the following image shows Salvadoran children playing in the schoolyard of a newly constructed school in 1969.  In close coordination with the Office of Planning and School Construction, USAID financed the construction of hundreds of schools in El Salvador during the 1960s.

In the second image, taken this year, Markoli confidently grips her notebook as other students gather behind her outside of a schoolhouse in Geia village.  While the school provides primary education up to grade level 3, the age range of students varies greatly as this is the first school for the Bodi people of Geia in the remote area of South Omo, in southern Ethiopia. This school was built by the local community with funding from the USAID Teach program.  The villagers provided the labor, and USAID funding provided the materials and funding for a teacher.

Putting Pupils on the Path to Education

On September 1st, I participated in the opening ceremony of the new school year in Kalys-Ordo School # 86, located in a new settlement close to Bishkek in the Kyrgyz Republic. USAID has supported early learning activities in this community, to help more than 1,350 school-aged children participate in a 100-hour state-operated training course. The course prepares the children for school, and introduces the children to learning and a classroom environment. USAID also helps families with school registration, which can be such a hurdle that it actually prevents some kids from starting school.  Seeing the pupils on their first day of school, excited and nervous at the same time, made me feel proud that the United States is investing in the future of this country through its children.

USAID supports early learning activities in Kyrgyzstan, which prepares children by familiarizing them to learning and the classroom environment. Photo Credit: USAID

Youth represent the future in every country, and that is certainly true in Kyrgyzstan, a nation in the midst of dynamic change in Central Asia. Among USAID’s programs in the Kyrgyz Republic, we are investing in strong schools, healthy students, and modern education systems across the Kyrgyz Republic.

USAID Kyrgyzstan has been working on different educational projects in the Kyrgyz Republic since the country gained independence 20 years ago. Since then, with USAID assistance, students in Kyrgyzstan are able to have equal and transparent access to higher education and government scholarships. USAID has supported National Testing since 2002, a standardized exam that is used to award scholarships and is completely merit based. More than 240,000 students have taken the test and more than 44,000 scholarships have been awarded through 92 test centers across Kyrgyzstan. It is widely accepted that this national testing system has reduced corruption in the admission process to universities and has increased the overall quality of the students. USAID also supports access to quality higher education through a program that guarantees student loans in partnership with private financial institutions.

I am delighted and honored to work in an American program which engages both the government and society in Kyrgyzstan, to help bring about quality education for children and young people in this beautiful country.

NASA Congratulates USAID on Education Strategy with Video from Space for International Literacy Day

A New School Year

The start of September is always a time that we once again turn our thoughts to education.  Our children get ready for school, are excited at the prospect of seeing their friends, meeting their new teacher, and learning new skills. For others it is a time to return to university and continue their education, be it at a college, university, or to learn a technical trade. It is a time to remember the promise that education can bring, and the optimism it gives us for the future of our children, our community, and our nation.

However, as millions of children in the United States return to school this week, it is a good time to remember that there are an estimated 70 million children in the world who do not have access to even a primary level education, who don’t have the same hope of learning new skills, and who are missing out on what may be their only chance at learning how to read and write.  Most of these children live in developing countries, and those that can’t attend school are disproportionally girls.

However, even children who do manage to attend school in lower income countries face almost insurmountable obstacles to learning.  They often have to walk very long distances to reach schools that are poorly furnished or equipped.  Electricity and water supply are frequently lacking.  Teachers are ill-prepared to teach and lack textbooks and other teaching materials. School systems are underfunded, poorly managed and there is no accountability for ensuring that children learn.

With all these challenges it is not surprising that there is mounting evidence that many children in low income countries are spending years in school without even learning to read.  In fact, approximately half of the children in lowest-income countries cannot read anything at the end of grade 2.  Yet, learning to read in early grades is essential to success in future grades.  Children who do not learn to read in primary grades face limited economic and life opportunities.  A recent UNESCO report points out that 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low income countries left school with basic reading skills—equivalent to a 12 percent cut in global poverty.

This year USAID embarked upon a new, more focused, Education Strategy.  Goal One of the strategy is: Improved reading skills for 100 million children in primary grades by 2015.  Given limited resources, USAID believes that the most strategic and lasting impact it can make in basic education is to improve early grade reading skills, opening doors to better opportunities later in life.  USAID will also intensify efforts to measure its program outcomes to make sure it is on the right track. Without evidence that identifies what works and what does not work we will not be able improve program performance and outcomes and target resources to the most effective program approaches.

Goal Three of the Education Strategy looks to provide equitable access to 15 million children and young adults that cannot attend school due to conflict and crisis. Armed conflict and natural disasters often disrupt education systems. Schools are destroyed, governments are unable to function, and it can be too dangerous to attend school. USAID is working to provide safe and equitable access in these environments so that critical years of education are not missed, and opportunities are not forever lost.

In working to improve early grade literacy skills and provide access in conflict and crises environments, USAID is strengthening its collaboration with an ever-growing number of development actors – U.S. agencies, international donors, host country governments, NGOs, and the private sector – to create a shared vision. Working together to identify the most innovative and effective ways to support education, we hope to achieve these ambitious goals.

International Literacy Day: “Poetry Unplugged” on Literacy Day in Kosovo

Children reading in Green School’s library. Photo Credit: USAID/Kosovo

Earlier this year, the US Ambassador in Kosovo officially opened the Pristina “Green School”, built using recycled materials in an eco-friendly  design with support from USAID.

USAID’s Basic Education Program worked to turn its bare classrooms into modern learning environments.  To encourage reading among the students, the Basic Education Program procured child-friendly furnishings and books for the school’s library.

For Literacy Day, September 8th the program has arranged a special event entitled “Poetry Unplugged” in the new school library. 40 students from 6 different primary schools of Pristina will gather in the library for poetry reading by three well-known local poets. The readings will be followed by a discussion with the poets and then a poetry workshop with a young poet, during which the children will produce their own poems.

This Week at USAID – September 6, 2011

After a hiatus, we will be continuing the “This Week at USAID” series on the first day of the work week.

Thursday, September 8th is International Literacy Day. The Center for Universal Education at Brookings, the Education for All-Fast Track Initiative, and USAID will mark the day by hosting a series of panel discussions on how a range of education stakeholders are addressing the challenge of improving literacy, particularly at lower primary levels, to help fulfill the promise of quality education for all.

Stephen Haykin will be sworn-in as USAID Mission Director to Georgia.

Raja Jandhyala, USAID’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Africa, will testify before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights on the long-term needs in East Africa.

Alex Their, USAID’s Assistant to the Administrator and Director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, will testify before U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on development programs in Afghanistan.

Memories of Schooldays in Panama…

USAID will mark its 50th anniversary in November and as part of the commemoration USAID’s news publication FrontLines will dedicate its next photo contest to a celebration of the Agency’s history.

School children in Anton, Province of Cocle’ Panama dash to their classrooms in the newly inaugurated school. Photo Credit: USAID

FrontLines is looking for photos that illustrate USAID’s development activities and the people who carried them out over the decades.

The contest is open to any FrontLines reader, including USAID employees and alumni; employees of NGOs and contractors; and representatives from universities, foundations and other organizations that have partnered with the Agency over the decades.

The deadline for photos is Aug. 15. More information and guidelines for submission available in Frontlines. The above photo is from Panama. The date is unknown.

USAID Helps a Father Find His Voice

When Angelo Domingos’ daughter came to him with news that she would be re-enrolling in school, his heart leapt with joy.  Only a short time had passed since she, like many young Mozambican girls, had dropped out of school after finding herself pregnant at a young age.   Angelo’s other daughter had followed suit, and it seemed likely that they were destined for the downward spiral of pregnancy and lack of education that  affects too many vulnerable young women in Africa.

As a nurse of twenty-four years, Angelo knew from both his professional and now personal experience that young girls are often the most susceptible to predatory adults, sexually transmitted diseases, and the trials that come from having few, if any, role models in the community.  Desperate to help his daughters find a way out of the seemingly intractable problems burdening his family, Angelo began to volunteer with a local program funded by USAID through PEPFAR, and implemented through the Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs.

This initiative, called Avante Raparigas! (Go Girls!), aims to educate communities on how to communicate more effectively with young women about the endless series of dangers, difficulties, and discouragements they are so often forced to endure.   The program excels at bringing parents and children together to discuss difficult topics:  risky sexual behavior, peer pressure, alcohol abuse, and even the prevalence of pornography within the community.  Using a series of visuals, brochures, manuals, and trainings, the Go Girls! Program helps parents navigate the sensitive and often awkward conversations they need to have with their children to support safe and healthy futures.

Young women in Mozambique are disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic.  With a specific focus on reducing the number of HIV infections in girls aged 10 to 17, Go Girls! has reached out to over 1,000 community leaders in eight different villages and has touched the lives of over 5,000 individuals in those targeted areas.  While Angelo had signed up as a volunteer to help as many young women as possible, the most immediate benefit was the improvement of his  relationships with his daughters.

“My daughters were in the target group that received training in life skills and adult-child communication,” he said at the recent closing ceremony held on May 11th in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital.  In front of an audience of dozens that included U.S. Ambassador to Mozambique Leslie Rowe, Angelo made it clear to all those listening: “My daughters have benefited from the course.”  During his speech, he talked movingly of how they achieved an early victory together when, after learning that many young girls were being lured by older men into video houses showing pornographic films, people in the program convinced the establishments to stop the practice of showing adult films during the day.  They even got the adult video houses to promise not to allow admission to any underage girls, no matter what the hour.

Jose Baessa, a 47 year old school headmaster, is another who has witnessed first-hand the results of this program.  Jose asked Go Girls! to work with his students, and quickly noticed the difference in the way the young girls carried themselves, and communicated with other. Most tangibly -they were no longer becoming pregnant.  In fact, just one year into the program, teen pregnancies in the Mogovolas District of Nampula Province—where Jose was headmaster—dropped all the way to zero.  A shocking—albeit thrilling—turn of events for a community too often beset by bad news. Jose even noted a closer relationship between teachers and students after Go Girls! began their work.  In one memorable case, school teachers were able to successfully intervene with four girls who were involved in prostitution—a practice all too common in rural Mozambican communities.  “Now the girls are enrolled in a training course for teachers,” Jose said, beaming with pride.

Not all the benefits have been anecdotal.  Results from the Go Girls! evaluation suggest that the lessons learned in meetings remain with the program’s beneficiaries – over 90% of adults who participated in Go Girls! recall the content of the adult-child communication sessions they attended, such as topics on how to talk to children about safe sex and HIV/AIDS.  Girls whose parents participated in the adult-child communication program reported improved relationships with their mothers and fathers, and girls whose teachers were in the program reported feeling safer in school relative to girls not in the program.  Of course, imitation is the most successful form of flattery and to that end many principals and teachers are hoping to replicate the program with children outside the current target ages of 10 to 17 years old.

The need for action is strong.  With HIV infection rates at extremely high levels amongst Mozambican youth, a program like Go Girls! that targets HIV reduction can make a life or death difference to vulnerable young women.  As U.S. Ambassador Rowe noted in her speech at the ceremony, “Survey results indicate that Mozambican girls aged 15 to 24 are currently afflicted with an HIV prevalence of 11.1% whereas their male counterparts only have a corresponding prevalence of 3.7%. This is unacceptable, period. It is up to all of us to work together to make sure that our programs – across all sectors – address the vulnerabilities of women and girls, especially to HIV and AIDS.”

While the bigger picture is very important to someone with a strong social conscience like Angelo Domingos, it was clearly his personal benefit from the program that brought him the greatest joy.  Despite all the adversity his daughters would continue to face, he could relax knowing that they were back on track to receive an education and hopefully, a brighter future.

Learning Life Lessons from Soap Operas and Reality TV

Parents and teachers have long grappled with the issue of how young people can learn about important life skills and issues.  In the classroom, it’s possible to make science fun; who wouldn’t be enthralled the first time they make a volcano erupt using only vinegar and baking soda?  Shakespeare can come alive when students act out the scenes or are asked to translate the content into a modern rap.  But how can we engage youth on topics like financial management or sensitive issues like sexual harassment?

Entertainment education is a method of engaging audiences to teach, model, and inspire behavior change.  Historically, fables and stories have fulfilled this role.  In today’s times, entertainment education has been exemplified by the Cosby Show, with a focus on parent-child communication skills.   Body Love, an Atlanta-based radio show seeks to reduce racial health disparities.  USAID is leveraging the power of entertainment education to empower youth to lead healthier, safer, and more productive lives.

Fire and Gold Soap Opera Helps Youth Tackle Financial Management

Somalia has a strong story-telling tradition, and a USAID-funded soap opera titled Fire and Gold is building on this tradition to promote financial literacy and help youth plan for the future.  The title refers to themes in the series: Fire represents the problems and the conflicts that break out between newly wedded couples due to poor financial decisions, and Gold represents a pair of gold earrings that play a prominent role in the storyline, as well as the notion of prosperity and success.

A Somali woman stands in front of a promotional poster for a financial literacy soap opera targeting youth. She holds an MP3-enabled mobile phone that receives the program broadcasts. Photo: EDC

The soap opera is broadcast in the Somali language using MP3-enabled mobile phones.  Phones are distributed to provide free access to cellular content for groups of listeners, and offer several advantages over radio due to Somali radio broadcasting restrictions, the possibility of radio station shut-downs, and radio disruptions due to unrest or poor reception quality.

The MP3-enabled devices provide consistently high-quality audio on demand as well as an interactive learning environment.  After the MP3 audio program is delivered,  soap opera characters  ask students to answer questions about the day’s lesson.  The students determine and submit an answer as a group, and immediately receive encouragement for a correct response or additional instruction when needed.

Through Fire and Gold, USAID and implementing partner Education Development Center help youth to acquire the financial literacy skills they need. The project also helps youth network among the Somali business community to gain work experience and job prospects.  In the series, youth are asked to think about what they want to achieve both personally and professionally, and then to create a plan for reaching those goals.

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