Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
“There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girl.” - Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary General, April 2003.
One would have imagined that following such powerful statements by renowned world leaders, girls in southern Africa would be at the centre of education policies in the region. But this is not so. Despite such noble calls, the goal of achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education by 2005 was unmet – and will remain unmet by 2015 – in many southern African countries. What is particularly disheartening is that this is an important, realistic and reachable goal. In turn, none of the other Millennium Development Goals are likely to be met unless there is significant progress in girls’ education. Educating girls is a sure way to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutritional status and health, reduce poverty and dent the rates of HIV infection and other diseases. All other development goals hinge on meeting the goals of gender parity and universal quality education. So, why are we getting it wrong?
There is no controversy about the fact that education is a fundamental human right. As far back as the 1960s, the right to education has sat comfortably in human rights frameworks and discourses. It is agreed that access to education ends generational cycles of poverty and provides a foundation for sustainable development. Every child is therefore entitled to it. Yet more than 72 million children in the world are out of school and almost 60 percent of them are girls (UNICEF/UNESCO, 2006). The tragedy of this failure is that an unthinkable
number of girls are being abandoned to a bleak future. Why is this so? There are many barriers to girls’ education in Africa, including poverty, violence in education, the impact of HIV and AIDS, and gender roles and traditions – to mention just a few. Addressing these challenges is key to promoting education for girls. Globally, governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations, civil society organizations and others are not blind to these challenges, and are working together to ensure more girls enrol and remain in school. However, these efforts need to be stepped up if current tragedies are to be reversed. This article contextualises girls’ education in southern Africa, highlighting the challenges and proposing strategies for dealing with them.