WFP is joining with the African Union to mark the second Africa Day of School Feeding on Wednesday 1 March 2017.
WFP partners with governments on school meals programmes in 41 African nations. In Mali, where gender equality ranks among the lowest in the world, school meals are providing an incentive to keep girls in school.
According to UNICEF, 15 percent of girls in the country are married by the age of 15, and less than 8 percent of women and girls have received a secondary education. Despite the levels of gender inequality, individuals, organizations and the government are taking steps to bridge the gender gap.
Cheick is the principal of Yarka School in the city of Yarka in Kayes Region — an area with high rates of child marriage and low school attendance. He has been advocating for gender equality and child education.
Sitting under one of the trees Cheick planted for the school yard, in the middle of the Sahel desert region, Cheick told WFP staff how one of his best students, an ambitious 12-year-old girl, was forced to quit school and marry a man twice her age.
Cheick went to the police to try to prevent the situation and negotiate with the parents to keep their daughter in school, but ultimately the parents decided that marriage and quitting school was the best option for their daughter.
This was not the first time a bright young girl had left his school for marriage, but Cheick was determined it would be the last. “I am committed to keeping young girls in school and raising awareness about the wrongfulness of child marriage,” he said.
In 2003, Cheick went to the Regional Education Facilities to request that the World Food Programme’s school meals programme – which provides a daily hot meal to students throughout the country—be brought to his school.
School meals not only provide nutrition and energy to students, helping them concentrate and learn, they also provide a strong incentive for parents to send their sons and daughters to school, increasing enrolment and retention rates (the percentage of students staying in school from one academic year to the next). In Mali, the retention rate for schools supported by WFP’s school meals programme is 98 percent, compared to the national average of 63 percent.
In 2004, WFP began implementing the school meals programme at Yarka, serving lunch to 138 students, 48 of whom are girls. “The school meals play a double role in my school: They prevent students from coming in late and they have curbed dropout rates,” Cheick explained. “They’ve also played an important role in keeping girls in school.”
He started advocacy and awareness-raising sessions in his community, about the importance of educating girls and the dangers of marrying their children off at such a young age.
“Through raising awareness in communities, the number of girls enrolled in school and their retention rate have increased. I’ve also noticed a shift in attitudes about child marriage,” Cheik added.
Though WFP’s school meals have proven effective in Yarka School, a lack of funding for the programme forced it to be suspended for the 2016-2017 academic school year. Only a third of the necessary funding for October 2016-March 2017 season was received, which means that WFP can only provide meals to 60 percent of schools in northern and central parts of the country.
In 2015, WFP reached 17.4 million children in 62 countries with school meals, serving either breakfast or lunch, complete meals or snacks. In a further ten countries, it provided technical assistance to government school meals programmes, reaching approximately 10 million children.
Learn more about the Africa Day of School Feeding here.
All photos: WFP/Sébastien Rieussec
Text by Laura Lee Morris and Simone Gie
 Mali . Ministry of Education. Rapport d'Evaluation Des Capacites Nationales en Alimentation Scolaire A Partir De La Methodologie SABER. By K. Edmond DEMBELE. October: Bamako, 2014. Print..