In 2019, Ghana was ranked among the top ten countries for female business ownership globally[1]. Behind this statistic is the reality that most of these women-led businesses are small enterprises in the informal sector, that operate with tight margins and a variety of challenges that hamper their capacity to grow and employ others. The issue of the gender gap has been present across all of history, in all world economies and remains a barrier for many women today. This is due to glaring evidence of under representation, system bias, and unfavorable environments affecting women. When it comes to the education sector specifically, women are under-represented in school leadership positions despite major shifts towards achieving global gender equity over the past two decades. And now the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further prolong the journey towards achieving gender equality and even erode gains made towards gender parity, with recent studies showing that women have been the most affected by the pandemic,  both socially and economically[2]. Also, there is a greater tendency for women and girls to drop out of education and greater probability for them to report an increase in gender-based violence than men and boys[3]. Pragmatic measures are required to support female entrepreneurs in education, support girls to stay in school and ultimately bridge the gender divide in education. This is a worldwide issue, however, in Africa socioeconomic challenges exacerbate the problem, widening the gap.  

I grew up in a rural community in the southern part of Ghana where school leadership had always been male dominated, from teachers to school owners. I remember that this lack of female representation in education struck me as systemic gender bias, considering Ghana is a female dominated country. Gender research and publications in education have largely centered on enrollment and access, with limited focus on the gender dynamics at the leadership level. Therefore, in most countries, it is difficult to find statistics on the gender of school leaders. As Policy and Advocacy Manager at IDP Foundation I am proud to be advocating for the contribution that independent low-fee private schools make to educating the children of low and lower-middle income families. As a woman working to make these schools and their dedicated social entrepreneurs more visible in the education ecosystem I have been humbled by the tenacity and drive of the female proprietors whom I have met during field visits to some schools under the IDP Rising Schools Program. These women, against all odds have set up schools to not only educate the children in their community but also offer alternative employment to community members, thereby helping build the local economy. 

Why start a private school?

The women I have spoken to have had varied reasons for starting their school, including both a calling to address educational needs in their community and a desire to have an independent small business of their own. Ultimately, for these education entrepreneurs supporting the children of their communities is a passion. Plus, most start operating at no cost to the parents of their first students, rising to affordable fees as enrollment grows. Madam Selina Adablah, a proprietor in a low-income community in Accra, had served as a caregiver of local children at no charge for many years when community members suggested she should start a school. Other proprietors I spoke to had gained experience working in other private schools and felt compelled to start their own independent school serving children within their area. Many female proprietors start with creches and as the kids grow, additional classes are added up to the Junior High School (JHS) Level.

Challenges as a Female Proprietor

Given the circumstances that often lead to the decision to start a school, most female proprietors have limited skills and competence in managing a school compounded by other existing sectoral challenges such as lack of finance and limited support from key stakeholders. In addition to these hurdles, many face a lack of support from close friends and family as cultural gender stereotyping persists. For one proprietor in the Bono Region, setting up a school after a divorce had been a major challenge due to the negativity of her estranged ex-husband which almost led to the closure of the school. For others, school bus breakdowns, inadequate support from government and the community within which they operate, land litigation and other challenges still confront female proprietors on a daily basis. These obstacles have now been intensified by other pandemic-induced issues such as general economic hardship and increased operational costs. 

Rising above the challenge

Despite the difficulties they face, female proprietors have become inspirational role models within their community and provide encouragement to other women and girls that anything is possible. Often female proprietors have no formal education or haven’t completed Senior High School, yet the level of knowledge they possess, largely obtained on the job, and the enthusiasm with which they work is admirable.

“Given the success of my school, there have been some instances where others who want to set up a private school have approached me for guidance and advice on how to start and operate efficiently and I do so free of charge. I see that as an opportunity to give back to society and not a competition. There are other kids who need access to education and my school cannot accommodate all the kids in the district”
A proprietor in the Western North Region of Ghana.

Despite facing adversity many female proprietors remain proud of their gender. According to one proprietor, being a woman has been a contributory factor to her success:
“Most of the parents are relieved and confident in my motherly features and skills. Parents periodically visit the school unannounced to check up on the kids and they always meet me on the compound, going round the classrooms, monitoring teaching, and learning and ensuring that things are in order. That alone gives them an assurance that their kids are in safe hands.”
A proprietor in Greater Accra Region

What we need to think about on International Women’s Day

As we mark this day around the world, investment in women and girls’ empowerment is critical to avoid the reversal of what has been achieved in the past decade and to support systems that seek to address the pandemic-induced challenges. And we cannot wait, immediate and widespread action is needed to ensure real change is achieved. For female entrepreneurs within the education space, a commitment to breaking cultural stereotypes is a must for them to continue serving their communities and contributing to greater access to quality education for all children in Ghana, as well as providing inspiration to the girls who attend their schools. Such bold women need to be empowered, supported, and celebrated to promote global inclusion, gender equity and access, as the world strives to build back better after the pandemic.


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