By DOROTHY CHISI -
Prioritising the enrolment and retention of girls in school is a critical step in promoting equal opportunities for girls in Zambia.
It has been proven that increased education for girls has a dramatic impact on their subsequent achievements and on the status of their families socially, economically and health wise.
Girl education awareness has been given high consideration for the past 14 years in Zambia.
United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says globally, girls represent the majority of children out of school and face some of the biggest challenges in getting an education.
UNICEF further states that the centrality of women’s contribution to national development cannot be underestimated in that an investment in girls’ education is an investment in the family, community and nation.
Comparative data formulated by Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) in 1996 indicated that in the late 90s, 36 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa were missing from school.
The data showed that girls who gained access to education were often poorly served.
FAWE says normally, girls are discriminated against from the earliest stages of life, through childhood and into adulthood.
In Zambia, it has been observed that there is a steady attrition of girls relative to boys over the 12 years of combined primary and secondary school education such that by Grade 12, female pupils account for only about 35 per cent of the enrolment.
In trying to promote more girls in having access to education, the Ministry of General Education has in the past formulated and put in place a number of policies and programmes.
Strategies such as the 50-50 Enrolment Policy, whereby schools were by law compelled to enrol equal numbers of girls and boys at Grades One, Eight and 10, and the creation of co-education public schools and colleges, were implemented.
Other strategies include the conversion of boys-only public secondary schools into co-education high schools; introduction of the Re-entry Policy in 1997 and the construction of an extensive number of classrooms which is aimed at reducing overcrowding.
The Ministry of General Education has also introduced affirmative action in favour of girls at Grade Seven and Grade Nine levels.
In addition to that, the removal of the cut-off-point system for pupils proceeding to the next level will ensure retention of girls especially in higher grades, in the education system.
Girls’ education is both an intrinsic right and a critical lever in a country’s quest to reach other development objectives.
It has been said that providing girls with an education helps break the cycle of poverty.
UNICEF says educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will; they are less likely to die in childbirth; and more likely to have healthy babies and send their children to school.
Further, adolescent girls that attend school usually delay marriages and childbearing. They are less vulnerable to disease, including HIV and AIDS, and acquire information and skills that lead to increased earning power.
When all children have access to a quality education rooted in human rights and gender equality, it creates a ripple effect of opportunity that influences generations to come.
Girls’ education is essential in trying to achieve quality learning relevant to the 21st Century, including girls’ performance in secondary school and beyond.
While gender parity has improved, barriers and bottlenecks, as well as discrimination, remain in place especially at the secondary school level and among the most marginalised children.
These include unequal access, poor performance, early dropping out of school and low enrolment in higher education.
These barriers, and others, often affect girls’ education throughout the country.
Normally, the barriers can range from financial constraints to negative social norms that favour boys education when a family has limited resources.
Inadequate sanitation facilities in schools, such as lack of private and separate latrines, and negative classroom environments where girls may face violence, exploitation or corporal punishment are among other reasons that discourage girls from accessing education.
Many girls drop out of school at the onset of menstruation, partially because there are no separate toilet facilities.
Sometimes it is not enough simply to provide the latrines.
The recent Grade seven and Nine results for 2016 show a typical disparity in progression rates between boys and girls in schools around the country.
General Education Minister Dennis Wanchinga announced that a total of 387,273 candidates entered for the 2016 Grade Seven examination, of which 196,033 (50.62 per cent) were boys and 191,230 (49.38 per cent) were girls.
Dr Wanchinga further says of the 156,027 candidates that had been selected for Grade 10, 82,454 (54.24 per cent) were boys and 73,573 (45. 39 per cent) were girls.
The Government has responded positively to the need to help girls be retained and attend school favourably.
During the 2017 Budget presentation last year, Minister of Finance Felix Mutati announced that in an effort to increase and retain attendance of girls in schools, Government will in 2017 commence distribution of free sanitary towels to girls in rural and peri-urban areas.
Mr Mutati said the lack of proper sanitary towels limits girls’ access because some of them fail to go to school.
Mr Mutati also said the Government, under the Public Welfare Assistance Scheme, will this year support 14,000 girls from vulnerable households in 16 districts.
The girls will be provided with requisites to retain them in school.
Zambia National Women’s Lobby (ZNWL) chairperson Beauty Katebe said her organisation, which deals with girls in rural areas, is optimistic that the Government programme to support girls will go a long way.
She said interactions with the girls in the past has shown that most of them, especially those who have just reached puberty, opt to shun classes because they are afraid of spoiling their uniforms due to the lack of proper sanitary towels.
“Most girls in rural areas do not use proper disposal sanitary towels because they do not have money. So, their only option is using pieces of cloth,” she said.
Ms Katebe said girls prefer to abscond from school until their period has ended and in an event that their uniforms get soiled, the girls stay away from school for longer periods because of shame.
She said the distribution of sanitary towels will improve the attendance of girls in school because the girls will have one less thing to worry about every month.
Copper Rose Zambia (CRZ) hailed Government for its decision to provide free sanitary towels to girls in rural and peri-urban schools starting this year.
CRZ co-founder Natasha Salifyanji Kaoma said the decision was a demonstration of the Government’s resolve in ensuring that girls are not left out in the education agenda, and that they have access to education just like the boys.
Ms Kaoma says the decision by Government will help girls remain in school and access education on a continuous basis.
Scaling up school infrastructure is another thing that is being done to decongest and encourage more pupils in general, and girls in particular, to access education.
Senior Chief Puta of Chiengi District in Luapula Province recently said the Government has done a commendable job in upgrading primary schools into secondary schools.
The traditional leader said the Government’s decision has boosted the number of girls accessing education at secondary level.
According to him, a number of schools that have been upgraded such as Mwase and Lunchinda secondary schools have enabled a higher number of girls to access education than ever before.
“But I would like to call upon the Government, through the provincial education office, to consider building more primary schools in order for many children to have access to education,” the chief said.
He said a number of basic schools have been upgraded into secondary schools to a point where there were fewer primary schools now.
He said about 500 children in his chiefdom could not be enrolled in Grade One because of lack of school places.
The traditional leader said Government determination to deliver development to rural areas is commendable.
Chief Madzimawe of the Ngoni speaking people in Chipata District has also applauded the Government for the initiative to construct more schools in Eastern Province.
However, the chief said a lot of girls need sponsorship in order for them to proceed with their education.
“Although schools have been constructed, there is still need to support these children with their education, especially the girls.
The Government needs to come up with support for school girls to complete their education,” he said.
The traditional leader, who is also the founder of Madzimawe Royal Foundation, said there is no adequate information regarding the assistance to vulnerable girls in rural areas.
“Kudos should go to the Government for constructing more schools, although there is need for a lot of support to vulnerable girls in rural areas,” he said.
Chief Madzimawe said poor girls have not received the support that they are entitled to.
He said there is need for proper modalities to make information available regarding access to support poor girls, mostly those in rural areas.
According to Zambia’s educational profile of 2014, the primary net enrolment rate is 94 per cent and the primary completion rate is 91 per cent.
The gross enrolment rate in primary education is 114 per cent for both girls and boys combined, but this decreases to 68 per cent in lower secondary, with the pupil transition rate to secondary school is 56 per cent.