ZAMBIA: Getting girls back into school
Girls are being left out of schools
JOHANNESBURG, 11 December (PLUSNEWS) - Zambian girls are defying traditional barriers, teenage pregnancy and the risk of HIV infection to go back to school to finish their education.
They are doing this despite the findings of a new report that girls in sub-Saharan Africa face the highest school drop-out rate in the world, with up to 83 percent of all girls who no longer attend school living in the region.
"The State of the World's Children", released on Thursday by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), found that the number of girls in sub-Saharan Africa who had left school before completing their education rose from 20 million in 1990 to 24 million in 2002.
But the report also lists the Programme for the Advancement of Girls' Education (PAGE), a collaboration between the Zambian government and UNICEF, as an example of the type of action required by governments and the international community to reverse the trend.
The project's interventions "have been so successful that what was a pilot project in the mid-1990's has now been extended all over the country."
According to UNICEF education project officer Margaret Akinware, there are about 1,300 PAGE schools operating in Zambia's 72 districts. "Next year, the government will incorporate the PAGE best practices into all primary schools."
Bringing girls back into the classroom has been an uphill battle. A situation analysis conducted before the project started in 1996 revealed that many girls were being kept at home to help with domestic chores, or care for their terminally parents.
"When you combine this with the high teenage pregnancies and HIV-infection rates, as well as the girls' fear of being sexually abused on their way to school or in school, you realise how great the odds are," Audrey Mwansa, manager of the ministry of health's equity and gender unit, told PlusNews.
One of the PAGE interventions has been to introduce single-sex classes. "This is the one that girls themselves have said helped them stay in school longer, because they are not bullied or made to feel inferior by gender-insensitive teachers," Akinware noted.
The success of the project could also be partly attributed to the involvement of families and community leaders. PAGE coordinators enlisted local headmen to become advocates of the campaign to increase girls' access to education. "This really helped a lot - in fact, in some areas, these headsmen are now spearheading the initiative," Mwansa said.
Using the PAGE "Family Pack", parents were also encouraged to support the campaign by permitting their daughters to do their homework after school. Regular school visits, with parents sitting in on lessons, were another feature of the programme.
Mwansa admitted that cultural practices remained a major obstacle. "As much as you talk about it and get people involved, at the end of the day people will revert to their traditional patterns."
Initiation ceremonies were a case in point. Once girls reached puberty, they were withdrawn from schools and isolated in order to be taught about "womanhood".
"There is nothing wrong with this, but the problem arises when they get back and don't want to return to school - all they want to do is get married so they can become a woman," Akinware explained.
PAGE staff have been working with community members involved in the initiation ceremony to create awareness around safer sexual practices and the need for girls to continue with their education.
"What we ask is, why can't you shift the ceremony to the school holiday period, and when telling them about womanhood, make sure you are arming them with accurate knowledge?" Akinware said.
The country's "re-entry policy" had made the implementation of PAGE "much easier" when dealing with young mothers, Mwansa pointed out. When girls fell pregnant, schools were now compelled to allow them back into class.
"We literally pursue them and bring them to school, and even make special arrangements for special classes if they feel shy and ashamed."
"We try and make them and their families realise that the benefits of education are not just for them, but for their children and the rest of the country," Mwansa said.
"We stand no chance of substantially reducing poverty, child mortality, HIV/AIDS and other diseases if we do not ensure that all girls and boys can exercise their right to a basic education," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said in a statement. "In daily life, knowledge makes the crucial difference."
To access the report: www.unicef.org