Professor Freda Wolfenden, Kimberley Safford and Dr Deborah Cooper have spent a decade empowering women and children in rural and under-resourced communities in sub-Saharan Africa through education. Their work has helped more than 3,000 women gain confidence and embark on a pathway to financial independence.
“We’re passionate about the power of education to transform people’s lives”, Professor Wolfenden explains. “When we began exploring why a higher proportion of girls dropped out of schools in rural areas of Malawi and Sierra Leone, it became clear that the lack of women teachers was a significant contributing factor.”
The researchers studied the lived experience of women teachers, teaching methods, gender dynamics and teacher recruitment in these countries to understand why.
“Women teachers act as powerful role models for girls in cultural and economic contexts where female education is not a priority”, Wolfenden notes. “They can also create the safer environments for those who have experienced gender violence to continue their education.”
Wolfenden, Safford and Cooper found existing incentives for women teachers to take roles in rural areas were ineffective.
“These schemes primarily focused on recruiting women from cities to teach, who often struggled to integrate with rural communities”, Wolfenden notes. “In the OU tradition of widening participation, we felt it would be better to focus on empowering young women from these communities themselves to become teachers.
In 2012, the researchers and a consortium of national and international partners launched their first programme to upskill women in these rural areas to train to become teachers. Combining coaching, technology and OU maths and English distance learning, the programme ended in Malawi in 2016 but continues today in Sierra Leone, where it still has a profound impact.
“The Government of Sierra Leone now recognises it as a route into teaching”, Safford explains. “However, what we’re perhaps most proud of is giving women a pathway to learning, community participation and even leadership. Many who’ve taken part were not in education or employment, and some had been ostracised by their communities, but have gained status and confidence through education.”