Girls’ Access to Education. The Barriers.
There are many challenges that girls and women face in getting an education in Zimbabwe particularly at higher and tertiary levels. The greatest perhaps concerns socio-cultural issues including gender stereotypes and early marriage. Patriarchal ideology remains ingrained in society with women helping to cement it. While the progress made since the colonial era must be acknowledged, the education and empowerment of girls and women seems to be the reserve of higher income brackets.
A prevailing attitude is that it is more important to educate boys since girls are expected to get married and their education benefits their husband’s family. Currently the legal minimum age for civil marriage under the Marriage Act in Zimbabwe is 18 years for men and 16 years for women and there is no minimum age of marriage for registered customary marriages under the Customary Marriages Act. It is generally acceptable that girls/young women get married younger, it is not the exception.
Many young girls fall pregnant while still in school and are hurriedly married off or judged harshly, leaving them to face consequences alone while those responsible for impregnating them often go freely about their business and their life goes on, as if these girls were self-pollinating. For many this is the end of the road in terms of education. With little or no education, many women are trapped and powerless, unable to support themselves and reliant on their husbands. Girls and women are often socialised to believe they can’t have a successful family life and a successful career and often sacrifice academic pursuits for their so-called ultimate purpose of being a wife and mother. After all what kind of woman does not put the interests of her family above her own? Dr. James Emmanuel Kwegyir Aggrey said, “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” Fantastic, but it should be considered, that other benefits aside, education for girls is their right as human beings. Girls can become wives and mothers, that is not a bad thing but they are also individuals who need to be empowered.
A lack of adequate reforms in education further exacerbates the situation. The Education Act (1986) states that all children in Zimbabwe have the right to education and also that no child shall be refused admission to any school on
the grounds of race, tribe, colour, religion, and place of origin, political opinion or the social status of his/her parent. Progressive, yes but this gender blind legislation deals with issues of enrolment and equal access but ignores the different needs/ circumstances of girl children in light of accepted gender roles. If not considered during policy formulation they cannot be addressed at implementation level. Corrective measures such as affirmative action in the case of university entrance where girls could gain admittance with lower academic points than points acknowledged that girls were often required to do more chores at home and had less time to devote to their education. This however did little to resolve the core issues causing gender imbalances and even caused female students not to be taken seriously. All kinds of laws can be enacted, however a change of mindset cannot be legislated and pervasive societal attitudes need to be overcome in order to provide an equal platform where boys and girls can have the same opportunities.
Education systems also fail girls when they are encouraged to study the supposedly ‘softer and more feminine’ arts as opposed to sciences subsequently leading to careers related to their field of study. While there is nothing wrong with either, this should be a choice. There is also need to be more female role models to highlight the endless opportunities available. The denigration of educated and independent women must also come to an end. Why can’t women combine their femininity with ambition? Until there is an enabling environment where the contributions of girls and women are valued and they are encouraged to think for themselves regarding the course of their own lives without societal pressure and expectations; little progress will be made.
From an early age society stifles girls’ potential by teaching them how and who they should be, not what they can be. Their world view is thus shaped, confining them to a certain societal sphere from which they have no business venturing. A definite shift in the perceptions of female roles and acknowledgement of the pivotal role played by girls and women as equal members of society is crucial. When we fail to educate women and girls, we are saying that the other half (actually more than half) doesn’t matter? We unfortunately stunt progress when in fact educating girls, benefits the family, community, society and economy of a country and creates well-rounded individuals who can participate meaningfully in development.