Malian children miss out on school because their parents can't afford the fees, uniforms, books and pens so the government launched a sponsorship scheme this month, recruiting businessmen and even footballers to help impoverished children get an education.
Officials say the cost of putting a child through school is about 25,000 CFA (US$ 46) a year -- which makes life difficult for parents in a country where around 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day and women have an average of around seven children each, according to the World Bank.
"Poor kids like me miss classes because we do not have breakfast, ... and we can't afford school fees or stationery," said eight-year-old Hamidou Diakite, whose father died several years ago.
The Education and Solidarity Ministries have joined forces to run the campaign, which was launched on 16 June, the day of the African Child, with a plea to wealthy Malians to "let your hearts talk".
Mali has a low primary enrolment ratio -- the number of students in primary education as a percentage of the population of official primary school age.
"In 2000 the overall ratio was 57.8 percent, for girls it was 46.0 percent," Education Minister Mohamed Lamine Traore said.
Bernadette Ippet, president of the National Children's Parliament said a lack of education and poverty fed off one another.
"The majority of children don't go to school because their parents don't have the money. The less chance children have of going to school, the more poverty grows," she said.
To try to combat the problem, the government is collecting money from sponsors at a national level and then distributing it to the poorest children around the West African nation with the help of local political and religious authorities.
Both companies and individuals have put their hands in their pockets, including national footballer Seydou Keita who donated 1 million CFA. There is no fixed target for the scheme but so far, enough money has been raised to sponsor 300 children through school for a year.
The programme should help mothers like 35-year-old Hawa Samake, who lost her husband two years ago and can't afford an education for her two children.
"I have no money to send my two daughters to school so the only option left for them is to help me sell products," she told IRIN in a suburb of the Malian capital Bamako as her eight-year-old daughter Anna tried to persuade passers-by to buy some fruit.
Creating equal access for boys and girls to education by 2005 was one of the goals agreed at the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal in which Mali participated.
"The education of children of poor parents, notably girls, is not a desirable optional extra, it's a must," Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure said as the sponsorship scheme kicked off in Bamako.
His Minister for Women and Children offered some stark statistics.
"In Mali, 8 women out of 10 can neither read nor write, though they are the engine of any sustainable human development," minister Berthe Aissata Bengaly said.
It is not clear how many girls will be among the first 300 pupils to benefit from the scheme but it is not just financial considerations keeping them out of the classroom. Traditional ideas about a women's role in society -- as wife, mother and housekeeper -- also play a part.
"In the countryside, people fear that school will make girls turn their back on rural life and want to leave their village. They also think educated girls lose consideration for their parents," Aly Keita, a retired teacher, told IRIN.
Amadou Coulibaly, a farmer from Sanankoroba, about 20km south of Bamako, speaks for many of those that oppose schooling for girls.
"An educated girl cannot be controlled anymore: she wants to choose on her own a husband she meets outside, in the street or at school, which is in total contradiction with the principle of arranged marriage," he said.
Traore Oumou Toure, head of the Coordination of Women's Associations and NGOs in Mali, says mothers can be equally obstructive about their daughters attending classes.
"We've noticed in some villages that when men decide to let their daughters go to school, women oppose the move because they want their daughters to stay at home and help them do the housework," she said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.
Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.
We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.
Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian.