Education, Education and Education, this might as well been the theme of the just ended First African Girls Summit on Ending Child Marriages in Africa held in Lusaka Zambia.
One of the Parallel sessions I attended, focused on promoting girls’ and women’s empowerment with a focus on provision of quality education as a way to reduce child marriages.The panel also discussed ways to promote continued education for child brides and teen mothers.
The premise of this discussion was that in African countries and some Asian countries, pregnancy often marks the end of a young girl’s’ academic journey. Some are married off to men by their families for different reasons and they become housewives. In situations where the girl is impregnated and the man denies responsibility, the girl is forced to stay at home and help around the house if she is lucky. In the worst cases some are kicked out of the family home. This session therefore looked at the importance of keeping girls in school regardless of what would have happened. It also was informed by the sad fact that one third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18.
The Young Woman from DRC
A young woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo shared her story on how she got pregnant at the age of 15. She said that while her uncle and all the other male members of her extended family wanted to marry her off, her mother shielded her and sent her back to school. She used her meager income she gets as a trader to do this.
This young woman excelled at school and is now a graduate with a qualification in Political Science. She has now become the breadwinner for her family. This goes to show that the understanding of the importance of education by parents has the potential to make a difference in the lives of young girls.
The above anecdote, which is not the only story shared during the conference, shows the power of giving young girls a chance to go back to school. Also of importance during the conference was the discussion that focused on quality education.
Basic education has been proven not to be only inadequate for young women, it is even believed to have failed them as well. Basic education only allows one to read and write but it does not give skills that can help someone become employed. Thus keeping girls in school for longer periods is deemed more advantageous because girls will proceed to acquire education that is likely to assist them in their professional life.
In Lusaka, it emerged that when a young girl stays in school for at least twelve years, she is six times less likely to get married at a young age. Quality education therefore has a higher chance of providing learners with capabilities they require to become economically productive, develop sustainable livelihoods, contribute to peaceful and democratic societies and enhance individual well-being. The discussions and testimonies led to the emphasis of the need for governments to increase resources for education. Education ministers were implored to be the most active and be at the centre of ensuring that girls receive quality education and life skills.
While other people were clamouring over the inadequacy of free basic education, I was wondering about my country, Zimbabwe where basic education is not even free. As a country we need to go beyond preaching about the importance of education and ensuring that girlsin marginalised communities can access it up to tertiary level.
Quality education comprises of different aspects that contribute to important life skills. While the classroom component is quite critical, growth at an interpersonal level is very important. It was also discussed that young people need role models, people to keep encouraging them that they are worth a lot and can do better with their lives. Dr Tererai Trent, a scholar and humanitarian was there to provide mentorship for young girls who became mothers at a young age. Dr Trent told the girls that at 18 she already had three children and afterwards it took her ten years to complete her Ordinary level. Today, more than twenty years later she has a doctorate. It is this kind of mentorship that teen mothers and child brides need at community levels instead of being left to deal with a victim mentality on their own..
The Safety of girls in schools
Some girls have been kept out of school as some of the education systems have sometimes proven to be unsafe for young girls. During the discussion the issue of teacher abuse was raised as a critical issue in schools. Some teachers have impregnated young girls at various schools in Africa. In some cases, the young girl is expelled from school, while the teacher is just transferred to another region. Such decisions have compromised the pupil’s right to education yet only giving the teacher a second chance in life. Young people and activists at the summit demanded that governments through the education and justice ministries should ensure that teachers who physically or sexually abuse pupils, should receive stiff penalties that include being revoked from the education sector.
Hygiene facilities were also raised as a safety issue. Schools must have gender-segregated facilities and strong child protection mechanisms. It was said that the unavailability of proper facilities for young girls has been proven to hinder their ability to come to school consistently. This includes sanitation available for menstrual hygiene management and protection against sexual harassment. It was said that in schools there have to be clear harassment policies and should employ teachers who are properly trained to be in a position to be a point of reference for young girls.
Education is key
Delegates at the summit concluded that, good quality education had the power to change the plight of the girl in different communities. Their conclusions also emphasised that, educated mothers have the potential to allow the growth of a generation of educated and healthy children. The delegates also agreed that education empowers girls to delay marriage, to have the ability to make decisions on their own without being forced, to uplift others and it promotes literacy in all other spheres of life. Educated girls are more likely to be gainfully employed and ensure healthy lifestyles for their children. Not only should it be just education, but quality education.
Main image taken from www.au.int