Dominant social norms and practices, poverty, teen pregnancies and early marriages are among the highest causes of school dropouts among young girls in Zambia. The dropout rates are signiﬁcantly higher for orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs), students from poorer families, and those attending schools in rural areas. Above all, traditional practices and beliefs, misinterpretation of doctrines and low social status among women and girls make it hard for girls to remain in school.
The innovation “Changing Communities One Family at Time” funded by the UNDP through the SDG Philanthropy platform and implemented by Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) in partnership with Forum for African Women Educationalists in Zambia (FAWEZA), uses a holistic and integrated approach to challenge structural causes of early marriages and GBV. This is done by engaging and empowering girls and boys, parents, teachers, traditional leaders and communities to help keep girls in school.
Despite the existence of national-level policy frameworks such as the National Gender Policy, Re-Entry Policy and the National Education Policy among others, ingrained social norms and practices make it hard for children especially girls in rural areas to remain in school. Ministry of Education’s District Education Board Secretary (DEBS) for Kalomo District, Mr. Michelo Kaliba appreciated the project’s existence in the District: “I believe this intervention came at the right time,” he remarked. “This project has changed attitudes at the household level and also influenced other schools, not in the project to do something about girls’ rights and education in their communities with many of them offering to volunteer their time and energy.”
Going the extra mile to transform behaviours
The success of this project is to a large extent attributed to the selfless and hardworking Community Action Groups (CAGs) members who volunteer their time and energy to help sensitise their communities, especially parents on the importance of girl child education. The CAGs are a dedicated and determined team of changemakers who have seen the importance of girls education and are willing to go the extra mile to make sure girls get an education.
"Many parents in our community are now aware that no child should stop school because of having fallen pregnant,” said the CAG Chairperson for Mubanga area, Mr. Philent Muleya. “However challenges of transport to cover the long distance make it difficult for us to reach many people especially that we work as volunteers.”
The CAG members usually have to walk long distances to reach some of the neediest villages in their areas, with minimal support from the project. Perhaps it is this willingness to go the extra mile that gives hope for the sustainability of the project and explains the District Education Board Secretary (DEBS) assurance that “the facilitators are very enthusiastic and are willing to go a step further by reporting those parents who are stopping children from going to school.”
The CAGs also track children absenting themselves due to child labour and also child marriages. These groups are equipped and oriented on positive masculinity, HIV, affirmative policies among others.
Second chance to make a difference
Universe Sikabundu is a 16-year old grade seven pupil at Mubanga Basic School in Kalomo District of Southern Province with a four months old baby girl. She dropped out of school when she fell pregnant, but is now among the eight pupils that have since been re-admitted into Mubanga Basic School after the project’s intervention.
"I fell pregnant while in Grade 7 and dropped out of school because I was discouraged and afraid that people would laugh at me, but after being encouraged through the project, I decided to come back to school,” she said. “Some of the biggest challenges that we face as girls are poverty and peer pressure. It’s good that this project also helps our parents to do business so that they can keep us in school.”
A male student and peer educator from Nsalali Basic School Stemon Muzandu, 15, explained how the project has impacted his life and what message they take to fellow young people.
"We encourage those that dropped out of school to get back by highlighting the importance of education,” he said. “I love being a peer educator because it has helped me know the danger of involving myself in activities such as beer drinking and sex.”
Mutinta Siambele is a 17-year old grade nine girl from Nsalali Basic School who would love to become a journalist someday. She is a peer educator and head-girl of her school. “The project has been encouraging us not to get pregnant and instead focus on education so that we can help our parents and siblings,” she said.
Addressing economic aspects of education
Beyond teenage pregnancies, poverty plays a leading role in exacerbating high dropout rates among children in rural areas. It in light of this fact that each of the selected families received a minimal financial injection into an Income Generating Activity of their choice, so as to raise household income levels.
"I am happy that this project is in my area because it has helped to keep girls in school especially those who fell pregnant,” said Village Headman Muyuni from Mubanga area. “This is good because in the past girls who fell pregnant would just be in the village and even get married off especially that most the parents don’t have enough money to keep them in school.”
One of the beneficiary parents, Mr. Peter Miyoba explained the challenges she faced and how the project has helped him: “After being trained by FAWEZA on the value of educating the girl child and not just marrying them off I decided to bring my daughter back to school. She had passed her exams to go into grade eight but I didn’t have the money to support her so I just let her stay at home.”
He added: “This project gave me financial support but also reminded me that educating a girl child is something to be supported by the whole family and even community.”
Project sustainability and innovations
Despite the country’s many challenges, keeping the girl in school and preventing early marriage is a part of the government’s Seventh National Development Plan (7NDP) in Zambia. That coupled with the commitment and willingness to support the project by the Ministry of Higher Education at the district and provincial levels offer a great opportunity to reach out to many children.
The introduction of sex education through the Safe Clubs in school means that the problem of teen pregnancies can be dealt with through massive sensitisation of the young boys and girls on the dangers of pre-marital sex. But most importantly the willingness to change and the spirit of volunteerism shown by the communities in the target areas give hope to the sustainability of the project. But still, more support is needed both financial and technical if the project is to register the lasting impact.
The project has since managed to re-admit thirty-five children into different schools. It is being implemented in Kalomo District of Southern Province of Zambia, which has some of the highest prevalence rates of child marriages in the province. It targets four families from each of the four participating schools with a high prevalence of teenage pregnancies and child marriages, which are Bbilili Primary School, Mubanga Primary School, Nsalali Primary School and Siachitema Primary School.
The article is written by Bellah Zulu, Communications Expert at Norwegian Church Aid (NCA)