A new way of encouraging young mothers to stay in school

Date: July 28, 2010
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Macomia, 28 July. It’s time for a quiet tea break at Macomia Seconday School in northern Mozambique but the schoolyard is abuzz with the cries of babies – enough so that one might mistake it for a kindergarten.

The babies are being carted around by a group of older boys and girls, the type you might typically meet at a secondary school. Sometimes they bring the youngsters to their mothers for breastfeeding.

Welcome to a new initiative in northern Mozambique where authorities are trying to retain young mothers in the education system by allowing them to keep their children nearby in the schoolyard – and breastfeed them in between classes.

With one of the highest drop-out rates among young girls who are pregnant, have children or are forced into early marriage, Mozambique is a textbook case of troubling disparities in the boy-to-girl ratio in secondary schools, especially in its rural areas.

The nation of more than 22 million has an adult literacy rate of just 47% – and only 31% of its women are literate, much below the sub-Saharan Africa average.

This is why Silvio Comecar, a senior official in the Murrupula District Ministry of Education, thinks now is the time to act to keep girls in school.

“Young girls are vulnerable to cultural pundits who still adhere to age old misconceptions of discouraging the education of women,” he said in a telephone interview, noting that female education in northern Mozambique is further jeopardised by cultural dogmas which view 15-year-old girls as “ripe” for marriage.

But he also said misconceptions are “falling away” as many communities now see that girls can have the same opportunities as boys if they are kept in school longer.

Educating women has traditionally been a low priority due to traditions which favour boys – a phenomenon some of the country’s leaders are trying to address as they begin to embrace gender equality policies.

Although Mozambique’s leaders have signed the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development, which would commit them to binding targets around issues of gender equality (similar to targets set out in the Millennium Development Goals), they have yet to ratify it.

Encouraging girls to stay in school will go a long way to helping Mozambique claw its way up from the very bottom of the United Nations Human Development report, where it currently sits. It is dynamic initiatives like the one being implemented in the northern districts which will speed up development in the war-ravaged country.

If Mozambique can continue to introduce such programmes, it will be an example for the entire SADC region, which has a dismal track record when it comes to gender equality and female education.

This is especially true in higher education. An upcoming Gender Links Education Barometer Update notes that the gender gap widens at this level largely due to pregnancy and deeply entrenched stereotypes that discourage girls’ education, like those found in Mozambique. The report notes that female enrolment in primary school in Mozambique is 47% but drops to 38% at the tertiary level and just 31% at the vocational level, which is why such initiatives are welcome news.

Joana Mario, 23, might have been the perfect candidate for such a programme. Mario had to wait to return to school until a year after she gave birth to her baby daughter, who is now one-year-old.

“Coming back to school after a year staying a home doing nothing was hard for me,” said Mario, who wishes she’d been able to remain in school while she was pregnant and breastfeeding. “I think girls should be left to continue with their lessons after they fall pregnant because they get double punishment of losing lessons and at times being neglected by their families.”

Mario, who lives in Maputo’s Choupal neighbourhood, noted that “several” girls in her area will be unable to finish school because they’ve fallen pregnant or given birth and can’t cope with looking after young babies while in class.

“What the girls need is not only support from their families but from society in general and it’s not right that the boys who impregnate them are allowed to continue their studies and are viewed as heroes in some circles,” she said.

Denying girls like Mario the opportunity to stay in school while they are pregnant or breastfeeding is counterproductive if Mozambique hopes to achieve the targets set out in the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development and the Millennium Development Goals, which both call for the elimination of gender disparity in education by 2015.

This will not only enable women to be more economically productive, but hopefully it will allow them to better understand reproductive health issues, including their personal rights – which will not only save their lives and those of their children, but also bring about healthy populations in the region.

Fred Katerere is a foreign correspondent based in Maputo. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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sara says:

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sara says:

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