unicef-niger-girl-school-coen.jpgUNICEF is helping to build child-friendly schools in Niger, where school attendance rates are among the lowest in the world and just 31% of girls become students.

Partnering with IKEA home furnishing stores, which over the 2009 holiday raised $6 million in its Soft Toy Drive to provide schools supplies, UNICEF delivered school materials, teacher training and water and sanitation facilities to the students here. The result is a new school that has become the heart of a community and part of the exciting trend of increasing access to education in this West African nation.

UNICEF is transforming not only education, but age-old practices as well, like the forced marriages of young girls before they are 18.

“By giving girls the chance to go to school, we help them avoid underage marriages and forced marriages, which are fairly common around here,” says UNICEF Niger Communication Officer Adamou Matti Dan Mallam. “They also learn about health and maternity issues, and other practical things that can have a real impact in their everyday lives.”

11-year-old Zhara asks if boys can go to school, why can’t girls? “We’re really happy to go school. We want to do well and succeed,” she said. “I want to become a nurse and my friend, a teacher.”

IKEA, with the help of its customers, has donated more than $16 million to UNICEF, supporting a total of 40 projects in more than 20 countries since 2003.

Officials say the schools have become the center of village life. The parents are proud to see their children going to school, even enjoying the lessons brought home for them. “We used to have to travel to the city just to have a letter read,” says village chief Ali Katoumbe.

Watch the UNICEF video below…

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