More than education for girls in Zambia

Cristiana Conte | Apr 03, 2012

“I am bright and I want to go to school” – speaking up and protesting early marriage is the subject of a drama performance by the Girls Leadership clubs in Luapula province in Zambia. After performing, the girls break into a discussion about their futures. They state “we want to be able to contribute to decision making”, and as one girl puts it, “to show the boys we are capable of leadership”.

According to UNESCO’s 2012 World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education (PDF),  in terms of academic achievement ‘boys in Zambia outperform girls in both reading and maths, with girls’ reading achievement having declined very significantly between 2000 and 2007’. Illiteracy is 15% higher amongst girls than boys aged 15 -24 despite girls having a higher attendance rate than boys at primary level. Indeed the World Bank found that there were ‘gender disparities in favour of males at nearly all levels of education in Zambia’. So what is going on for girls as they rise through the ranks of education?

The answer is, quite a lot.

As numerous reports have demonstrated, being a girl in Zambia means your schooling is more likely to be affected by becoming pregnant, marrying young and performing household duties, such as cleaning, cooking and caring for your younger siblings. It also means that teachers often have lower expectations of your attainment and intelligence, and your parents will be less willing to send you to school if resources are scarce. Unsurprisingly boys are seen as a “better investment” as after marriage girls are considered to belong to their husband’s family.

Building confident young women through girls’ leadership clubs

But generations of young women are setting their sights high: girls’ leadership clubs are springing up in the country’s most rural secondary schools. This initiative started by the Zambian National Women’s Lobby, a partner of Womankind, is aimed at building a groundswell of confident young women able to participate in and take up leadership positions in their schools, communities and wider public life. And it seems to be working. ‘I want to be President of my country!’ one girl from Lubwe High School smiles when we ask what she would like to do when she leaves school.

Lubwe High School, which started its first girls’ leadership club in 2009, is one of 33 clubs set up by the Zambian National Women’s Lobby. When Womankind visited, it took us 9 hours to reach the small lakeside fishing town of Samfya and then a further 3 hours along a pot holed rutted track to reach the school itself. The excited greeting we received from a group of singing, confident young women made it all worthwhile. The clubs provide opportunities not only for girls who demonstrate leadership qualities but also for those with lower self-esteem who are encouraged to build their confidence and take on roles of responsibility. Members actively participate in raising and contributing money (around 5000 kwacha, which is the equivalent of less than £1) for their stake in resources for the groups, which provide a ‘safe’ space for girls to congregate, practice public speaking, support one another and build important relationships.

I want to be empowered, even if I am poor

Monica Chewe is in year 11. Her sister is supporting her to attend school as her parents are not working and it is not as costly to send her to this rural school. She is the youngest of 6 children, 4 girls and 2 boys, and will be only the second of her siblings to complete high school. The club is very important to Monica because she wants to develop her public speaking skills in order to build her confidence. “I want to become a medical doctor” she says, “it is important for girls to be educated, with education they can help their parents. I am going to help my parents in future.”

Clementina Mwanza, 15, who wishes to become a journalist in order to fight for women’s and children’s rights, says “I’ve learnt how to carry myself as a person and how to make choices because of the group”. Another 16 years old told Womankind “I’ve learnt not to doubt and look down on myself”.

Listening to the career aspirations of the girls at Lubwe and other secondary schools, you might hear inspired intentions of becoming nurses, teachers, lecturers, pharmacists, doctors, police officers, lawyers, journalists and engineers.

At Chipiri Secondary School, the Deputy Head teacher has seen first hand the difference such groups have made there: “we have had more girls applying to be prefects, confidently asking questions, querying issues and boys are now demanding they want a club too”. However the dream of attending university for many, he states, will remain just that as “only 2 to 3 children from this school will have a chance to go, partly because of lack of resources and grade attainment”.

There are also harrowing personal accounts of the odds young girls are up against to remain in education, let alone go on to pursue a career afterwards. Odds that too often are a result of poverty, lack of family support and resources, societal restrictions and gender-based violence and abuse.

Mary is in grade 12 and is studying Maths, English, Religious Education and History . Abused by her uncle after her parents died, she made the difficult decision to get married as a means of escape. And she is not alone in her plight. 18 year old Constance Mwansa lost her mother and was abandoned by her unsupportive father. Despite money being a problem she says “I want to be empowered, even if I am poor”. The groups have provided both girls with a sense of belonging and a platform for negotiating the challenges of early marriage and succeeding during and after their education. “I want to know more about the world and follow in the footsteps of clever and confident female role models” says Constance.

More than girls turning up at school

Although some instrumentalist campaigns-of-the-moment may have you believe it, it simply isn’t enough to have co-educational schools and expect girls to do the rest. The external difficulties posed by societal norms about gender roles, combined with challenging job prospects for women afterwards, mean education is a far more complex issue than just getting girls to turn up at school.

The Zambian National Women’s Lobby understands that belief in the potential of what one can achieve is vital for realising girls’ agency, even in unfavourable environments. Importantly, girls as they move from primary to secondary education are at a crucial age, where empowering the decisions they make can greatly change their life as women

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