By Roselyne Sachiti | The Herald (Zimbabwe) | 11 May 2016
At independence, the Zimbabwean Government committed to provide education for all irrespective of race, gender or religion. Through the Education Act of 1982, education was declared a basic human right, making primary and secondary public education free and compulsory.
According to the Zimbabwe Education Act (Chapter 25:04) all children have the right to education.
Such legislation paved way for equality and equity between girls and boys, and women and men as they all could access education without discrimination.
Zimbabwe’s education system encompasses 13 years of primary and secondary school. There are seven grades in primary school while secondary school is split into two levels; lower secondary covering Forms One to Four and upper secondary covering forms Five and Six. Compulsory education in Zimbabwe comprises primary and lower secondary.
Equal numbers of boys and girls complete primary school, but by the time they graduate to secondary school, there are half as many girls as boys. How do the girls disappear from the education system?
Gender inequality, poverty, family pressure, gender-based violence and early marriage, inadequate sanitation among others are keeping girls from completing school in Zimbabwe, and this has lasting effects on women’s and families’ health.
Until January 2016, laws pertaining to marriage in Zimbabwe were discriminatory against girls: the Marriage Act allowed girls aged 16 to marry while the minimum age for boys was 18.
This inequality resulted in many poor girls in Zimbabwe’s rural areas, being forced into early marriage as with their parents’ consent, girls as young as 16 could marry while their male counterparts continued with education.
But in January 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Marriage Act, which allowed girls as young as 16 to be married with their parents’ consent, was unconstitutional and recognised 18 years as the legal minimum age of marriage.
This resulted in equality between boys and girls, though even after the judgment, many girls who had lost their right to education as a result of early marriage will find it hard to catch up on the missed opportunity because of marriage dynamics that come with patriarchy.
The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, (MICS) 2014 shows the disparities between boys and girls in education because of early marriage.
According to MICS, a total of 4,9 percent girls were first married or in a union before age 15 while only 0,3 percent boys married before the same age.
The same report notes that the percentage of girls in the total out of school population at primary and secondary school was 45 percent and 47 percent respectively.
There is no excuse for girls to be out of school because of pregnancy or any other reason.
The Zimbabwean Government offered a lifeline to girls who would have fallen pregnant during secondary school by allowing them to return and finish their studies upon giving birth.
Yet, most girls who have fallen pregnant and dropped out of secondary school have faced some stigma especially from other pupils and not taken up this offer.
While it is important for school authorities to monitor and encourage female victims of early and forced marriage to remain in school, informal school policies also push them and their dreams further away.
Nonetheless, studies have shown that one additional year in school can increase a woman’s earnings by 10 percent, and having a literate mother makes a child 50 percent more likely to live past the age of five.
For example, MICS 2014 points out that post-neonatal mortality rate was 30 deaths per 1 000 live births for children of mothers with primary education, 23 deaths per 1 000 live deaths for those with secondary education and 19 deaths per 1 000 live births for those with higher education.
If educated, women can also better understand the nutritional needs of their children.
MICS 2014, says children whose mothers had secondary or higher education were least likely to be underweight and stunted compared to children born of mothers with no education.
Education also plays a pivotal role in combating ignorance, disease and poverty and is key to socio-economic and political transformation, which leads to improved livelihoods hence development.
Sanitation challenges have also pushed girls out of school. The absence of proper sanitation facilities like toilets and clean and safe drinking water especially in rural areas also deter girls from attending school.
Poor girls who cannot afford to buy sanitary pads also choose to stay away from school.
Natural disasters like the El Nino induced drought, which has hit Southern Africa have also forced many girls out of school. In the patriarchy system, male traits are more valued than those of females. This has resulted in more girls, especially those whose families are dependent on agriculture, dropping out of school as their fathers choose to pay fees for boys, when the family fails to harvest anything.
The justification of this exclusion and inequality is that girls will marry into another family.
Without education, girls and adult women have fewer opportunities and little access to the means of production and cannot financially provide for themselves and their families.
Empowering girls and women through education has helped some countries increase and sustain economic growth which leads to improved living standards.
When given more rights and opportunities, women begin to receive some education resulting in an increase in the human capital of the country.
When given more education, women are also able to control their lives and are successful to bringing down rapid population growth because they have more say in family planning. These are such issues that will be discussed by policy makers, funders, activists and affected women at the Women Deliver conference between 15 and 19 May, 2016 in Copenhagen Denmark.
Investing in women’s education is the wise thing to do and governments across the globe can learn from each other’s successes and failures.