Thursday 10 December 2015

Educating the girl child in South Africa

In many senses our country has come a long way in providing better education to more people. We see schools where there hadn't previously been any, and children of all races able to access any school they choose, provided they can afford it. This is a far cry from the conditions under the apartheid regime, where equal access to education was deliberately prevented.

However, there is one burning issue that we must still properly address in our efforts to provide quality education for all. This is the particular challenge of educating the girl child. On the surface it may appear to be a simple matter of giving girl children access to equal education. This ignores the underlying, systemic challenges that the girl child faces, both in life and, consequently, on her educational journey.

Girl child access to education

Looking north across Africa we see that the girl child generally enjoys less access to education than boys. Enrolment rates at primary schools are typically lower for girls, and their proportion continues to drop off as they move through secondary and tertiary education.

Fortunately, in South Africa things have become more equal. For instance, female enrolment at higher education institutions has steadily increased over the years, reaching parity with males in 2001.

This does not mean, however, that the plight of the girl child has improved much. Even though they have better access to education, the ability to take advantage of this right is sabotaged by a multitude of factors that have an impact on their lives as a whole. This has caused a situation where, despite virtually equal enrolment rates, girls have a much higher drop-out rate than boys.

The girl child's reality

The girl child is subjected to the worst results of historical injustice and current social prejudice, particularly in the rural areas of South Africa.

One of the most critical realities that she faces is the horrendous rate of violence and harassment against women and girls. This can have huge ramifications for the girl child, not only psychologically but also for her education. The psychological effects of harassment or rape are long lasting. These can in turn manifest in the classroom, including the inability to concentrate and social withdrawal. Then there is the high rate of teenage pregnancy, which is related to the sexual violence incidence. Many young girls are left with children that they have to raise, even though they themselves are mere children. This is a significant contributor to school drop-outs.

There are other factors that prevent the girl child from getting the most out of educational opportunities. Poverty is a serious obstacle, not only in the sense of being able to afford education, but in a much deeper way. With poverty generally comes some form of malnourishment. This prevents optimal development in a child, which can lead to later learning problems.

Of course it can truthfully be said that poverty affects boys too, but the unfortunate reality is that poverty has a far greater impact on women than on men. Girls are disproportionally affected by cultural and economic issues, and are also responsible for domestic duties from an early age.

HIV/AIDS has also had a severe impact on girl child education. There has been an increase in child-headed families, due to AIDS fatality rates among the previous generation – and the responsibility for looking after the family falls disproportionately to the girl child.

Other, perhaps more subtle, conditions contribute to the challenges that the girl child faces in education. Relatively simple issues to solve, like a lack of sufficient sanitary facilities, negatively affect the girl child's educational experience.

What to do for the girl child

This is admittedly not an easy problem to solve. It's clear that the challenge of educating the girl child is a societal one, requiring interventions and development in many diverse areas. We need to put in a concerted effort across all levels of society so that the girl child can start to derive the most out of her education.

In many ways, solving the issues that girl children face requires solving the issues that our country as a whole faces. However, as we do this, it's important to remember that the girl child faces additional challenges that need to be squarely addressed. In essence, the challenge of the girl child is also the challenge of all women in our society today.

Let's start a conversation. Let me know what you think here or connect with me on Twitter (@EduloanSA)

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