3 stories from Zimbabwe: How communities can help pregnant girls and adolescent mothers continue their education

The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening girls’ education as never before. School closures increase vulnerability to child marriage, early pregnancy and gender-based violence, all of which decrease the likelihood of girls continuing their education. With 11 million girls and young women at risk of not returning to school, see how communities are finding ways to help 3 of them in Zimbabwe.

December 01, 2020 by Kerin Ord, World Vision International
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9 minutes read
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Out-of-school girls in Nkayi, Zimbabwe. August, 2019. Credit: World Vision
Out-of-school girls in Nkayi, Zimbabwe. August, 2019
Credit: World Vision

The threat that COVID-19 poses to efforts to realize the right to education for all children is clear. UNESCO estimates that nearly 24 million learners, from pre-primary to university, are at risk of not returning to school following school closures due to COVID-19. Of these, 11 million are primary and secondary school learners who, if they do not return to school, would wipe out gains made in reducing the level of out-of-school children since 2012.

Girls’ education is uniquely threatened. School closures increase vulnerability to child marriage, early pregnancy, and gender-based violence – all of which decrease the likelihood of girls continuing their education. Eleven million girls and young women are at risk of not returning to school, over five million of whom are in primary and secondary school.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for vulnerable girls. Governments, donors, partners, and communities have to coordinate closely to ensure that each and every girl returns to school safely as they reopen.”

Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO

A member of UNESCO’s COVID-19 Global Education Coalition – a coalition launched to protect the right to education during the COVID-19 pandemic – and its Gender Flagship, World Vision recently examined the issue of early pregnancy in a new report warning that COVID-19 school closures across sub-Saharan Africa could lead to increases in teenage pregnancy by as much as 65% on top of already high adolescent pregnancy rates – one in four girls in sub-Saharan Africa is pregnant before her 18th birthday.

When met with policies and practices that ban them from school, an estimated one million girls in sub-Saharan Africa alone may be blocked from returning to schools due to pregnancy once they reopen after COVID-19 closures.

Lifting the ban on pregnant girls

While a few countries across Africa – namely Togo, Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania – have laws and policies that expel pregnant girls from school and ban them from returning, many more countries across the continent prevent their return out of common practice, absence of clear policies, or re-entry policies that present other barriers or obstacles.

This has begun to change. In Sierra Leone, where 11,000 adolescent students became pregnant during the 2014 Ebola outbreak school closures and were met with the nation’s ban on their re-enrollment after schools reopened, the ban was lifted in March of this year after the ECOWAS court ruled it discriminatory.

The government is now praising this policy reversal as it anticipates similar impacts from COVID-19 and has additionally been conducting a nationwide campaign to protect girls and prevent teenage pregnancy during school closures.

In August, Zimbabwe amended its Education Act, making it illegal for schools to expel students due to pregnancy – a change that World Vision and educationalists had been advocating for years.

Elsewhere in places like Uganda and Kenya, school reopenings following COVID-19 closures will put the effectiveness of their re-entry policies to the test.

A new initiative in Zimbabwe to help girls stay in school

Lifting bans and establishing supportive policies are essential for the continued education of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers. The solutions needed to ensure the continuation of their education are, however, as multidimensional as the problem itself.

In Zimbabwe, World Vision leads the Improving Gender Attitudes, Transition, and Education Outcomes (IGATE) initiative – an A+ rated program of the UK’s Girl Education Challenge implemented in 318 rural schools in Zimbabwe.

IGATE works with networks of community learning champions, resident teachers, and peer leaders from school clubs to help girls enroll and stay in school or access community-based education opportunities like literacy and numeracy, life skills, financial literacy and vocational training.

During COVID-19 school closures, IGATE has continued to provide study guides, daily literacy and numeracy exercises, and support networks to meet the gap in distance learning for rural girls and boys.

As schools reopen in phases in Zimbabwe, the impact of the lockdown and school closures on adolescent girls is becoming clear. Early reports in some remote areas show as many as half of girls in exam classes are pregnant, married or not returning for other reasons, such as work.

While absenteeism of girls is a third higher in preliminary data, boys are also dropping out as they have moved to support themselves or their family in activities like gold panning, livestock herding or trade.

“Community engagement is key to overcoming the crisis – working with parents, caregivers, teachers, faith leaders and girls themselves who know the situations children are in, know whether or not they have returned to school, and partnering with them to make sure they get support.”

Janelle Zwier-Marongedza, IGATE Program Director

Through this critically important community-based approach, IGATE has been reaching pregnant girls and adolescent mothers and facilitating the solutions needed for them to continue on a path of education, well-being and prosperity.

These include alternative learning through study guides, learning material and small groups during school closures, awareness raising and community support structures around the Education Act amendment that assures their place in school, and community-based education to attain secondary qualifications and skills development.

Mercy

At 17, Mercy* was on track to complete her Ordinary Level education in a rural secondary school in Insiza, Southern Zimbabwe. In late March 2020, schools closed abruptly due to the COVID-19 lockdown, and Mercy discovered she was pregnant. Knowing how disappointed her parents would be, she eloped with her boyfriend in fear and moved to his family homestead 5 kilometers away.

Mercy was distraught by the idea that pregnancy could be the end of her education.

“I needed to continue my studies because I will not be anything in life without education." 

Mercy
Mercy endeavoring to continue with her studies as a new mother. Credit: World Vision
Mercy endeavoring to continue with her studies as a new mother.
Credit: World Vision

Her schoolbooks were unfortunately still at her family home, and her father refused to send them. Mercy started borrowing books from nearby friends, who she began studying with for a few hours each day.

When their small study group sought support from a resident teacher who IGATE had also been working with, the head teacher reported the situation to the IGATE team, who then followed up with Mercy.

While she was determined to continue learning, Mercy was not aware of the recent policy change that would allow pregnant girls to re-enter schools upon reopening. When the IGATE team informed her of this, she found renewed energy for continuing her studies and registered for national exams.

The IGATE team also met with Mercy’s father and were able to find a shared desire for Mercy to avoid premature marriage and succeed in school. Mercy returned to her parents’ home in early September, delivered her baby in October but started to struggle to find her rhythm.

“It’s not easy now that the baby is here. She cries and demands a lot of my attention, and at times it just seems easier to give up and pursue education at a later stage."

Mercy, during a recent follow-up visit by the IGATE team
Mercy endeavoring to continue with her studies as a new mother. Credit: World Vision
Mercy endeavoring to continue with her studies as a new mother.
Credit: World Vision

The team encouraged her to keep her focus and equipped her with study material to help her preparation. They also helped her to realize that she had nothing to lose in trying to attain pass marks in as many subjects she could, as her fees had already been paid.

“I guess I needed encouragement as I was starting to feel overwhelmed and losing focus. I promise to keep pushing and make the most of the few weeks left to study and prepare. I still want to be a role model to my daughter and others in my situation.”

Ntombi

Through another study group in a nearby area, girls shared concerns about some of their peers who were not coming to study. They knew something was wrong with one of their friends. With this referral, a pair of IGATE team members went to the girl’s home. There they found Ntombi*, a Form 2 student, alone, visibly pregnant, and afraid.

Ntombi never knew her mother and was raised by her aunt until she left for South Africa, leaving Ntombi with her grandmother who was not often around. She shared that the father of the unborn baby had lived in the neighboring district and, after a brief relationship, had disappeared without Ntombi knowing where he went or how to contact him.

At 16, Ntombi did not fully understand what was happening to her body. She was essentially alone and reluctant to leave the house to find help without the support of her grandmother or others.

After swelling in her face, she visited a clinic and had planned to return for another appointment in December. The IGATE team encouraged Ntombi to visit the clinic sooner and more frequently. They also informed Ntombi that she could return to school when they reopened based on the recent amendment to Zimbabwe’s Education Act.

Ntombi is not prepared to continue her education, first needing counseling and support to see through the pregnancy. The team and local mentors committed to frequent support visits and meeting with her grandmother and the village health worker to ensure that Ntombi is continually monitored.

Once she has delivered and regained confidence in her situation, Ntombi plans to explore her options of returning to school or continuing her studies through community-based education.

Riba

Riba* dropped out of school a few years ago at the age of 13 when her family could no longer afford school fees. Living with her grandmother and mother, daily life was consumed by chores and work to try to stay fed and cared for.

In these tenuous circumstances, she fell prey to the men in her area who offered her money and an escape. Riba was pregnant by the age of 15.

When the opportunity for girls who had dropped out of school to attend community-based education was shared in her village, Riba seized it, and her family supported her to pursue something for herself and her child.

After financial literacy training, Riba started a home bakery business, building a small traditional oven at her home and baking and selling scones, muffins, and cakes. The proceeds have enabled her to care for her son – aptly named Learnmore – and send him to school when he is older.

Truly building back better

Situations like those of Mercy, Ntombi, and Riba are far too common across Zimbabwe and elsewhere yet too often go unidentified and unaddressed. With policy changes to end the exclusion of pregnant girls and young mothers, more awareness is needed among caregivers, schools and girls themselves in order to reduce the surge in drop-outs already being recorded as schools reopen.

Mechanisms to follow up with girls and offer support can be effective, as in the case of Mercy and hopefully for Ntombi, but need committed community and school partnerships to scale to the level of need. Many girls, including those who dropped out before COVID-19, require other solutions such as skills training and non-formal education like the path taken by Riba.

When we talk about building back better, this is what we mean – removing pre-existing barriers for vulnerable children that are being further exacerbated by COVID-19 and emerging better on the other side.

World Vision is calling for five key actions to ensure that all girls, including pregnant girls and adolescent mothers, continue their education during and after the COVID-19 crisis:

  1. Ensure continued learning during school closures through distance education, including sensitization messages on gender equality, to continually engage and educate all girls throughout school closures and ease their return upon reopening of schools.
  2. Create an enabling policy environment to allow access to education by eliminating policies and practices that expel pregnant girls and establishing continuation policies and strategies to facilitate the continued education of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers.
  3. Organize public awareness and targeted back-to-school campaigns to help mitigate teenage pregnancy while schools are closed and ensure that girls who become pregnant return to school upon reopening.
  4. Deliver gender-transformative teacher training and education to create discrimination-free classroom environments, including sexual and reproductive health education to help reduce teenage pregnancy, and facilitate accelerated learning programs for adolescent mothers returning to school.
  5. Fully finance education, both domestically and internationally, to protect education budgets from potential cuts and to facilitate supportive measures for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers to continue their education, and recover education systems from the COVID-19 crisis.

For more on the barriers that pregnant girls and adolescent mothers face and how to support them to continue their education during and after COVID-19, see COVID-19 Aftershocks: Access Denied.

For more information on UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, see here. The Coalition was launched by UNESCO in March 2020 to protect the right to education during the COVID-19 pandemic. It currently brings together over 150 members from the UN family, civil society, academia and the private sector, among others. The Gender Flagship is a collaborative platform working to address the gender dimensions of COVID-19’s impact on education and safeguard progress made on gender equality in education. It has recently launched a campaign to ensure #LearningNeverStops for every girl everywhere.

* The girls' names have been changed to protect their privacy

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Gender equality
Sub-Saharan Africa: Zimbabwe
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IGATE is a good program, it should be supported to track all cases so supported to measure impact on livelihoods of these girl children. I would love to see how much this contributes to the education budget.

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