By: Rethabile Mashale*
Basic education enjoys recognition as both a fundamental human right and a development priority in terms of international, regional and national legal instruments, and development frameworks. In South Africa, several legislative pieces enshrine the right to, and make provision for, the delivery of basic education. There is also growing recognition and advocacy for universal education because of the realization of the role education can play in gender equality, poverty alleviation and boosting national economies .
South Africa’s basic education system enjoys the bulk of the national fiscus yet produces some of the world’s poorest results in math and science. The country is doing very well with primary school enrolment, at about 98% with nearly 100% gender parity. Yet, in the context of progressive policy frameworks informing the implementation of education, the on-the-ground reality for most young girls is harsh, violent and often leads to high dropout rates.
In 2013, the Thope Foundation was established in response to some of the challenges faced by young girls within schools as well as to attempt to redress the dearth of women and girls’ (particularly black girls) representation in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) education. In running educational and life skills programs, we’ve come to learn a few things about education inequality both at a systemic level and within the classrooms where quality learning and teaching is supposed to be taking place.
Firstly, the design of disadvantaged schools resembles prisons or places of incarceration. The buildings are built with brown or grey bricks, and are shaped like long and rectangular boxlike military barracks. The school bell that signals lunch breaks, class changes and the end of school is fashioned after prison sirens. This has bred a very institutionalized and militant school system where assembly points are blocked by rows of classrooms and children are herded in through tiny grey passageways where the school principal and teachers stand on elevated concrete platforms watching over school children in perfect lines.
Secondly, schools with limited subsidies for infrastructure and general upkeep, seldom prioritize the maintenance of toilets and sanitary facilities. The result is that toilets and bins in those toilets are vandalized, doors are stolen and they become very unsafe. Girls have to accompany each other to use school toilets for fear of rape and being attacked while using the toilets. Girls have also taken to staying home during their menstruation cycle, thus being deprived of a valuable 5 to 7 days of schooling.
In the classroom, both male and female teachers, often hand out books and learning materials to boys first so that if they run short at least boys will have access to learning materials. Girls are left sharing with those who have books. Despite these challenges, girls continue to be aware that formal education can unlock many opportunities for them and that they need to invest in it, and volunteer in many afterschool tutoring programs which are often overbooked. Most of these girls hope to receive materials and additional support to pass the year through attendance at these programs.
Classrooms are arranged in seating arrangements of four learners per learning station; male teachers often disaggregate these by sex/gender, encouraging boys and girls only learning stations. As a result, interaction between the sexes only occurs outside of the classroom. Seating them together, according to some teachers, incites hypersexualised behavior among girls towards boys.
Male teachers are so petrified of being accused of pedophilia and sexual harassment that they will only help boys during extra classes or only lean in to observe Workbooks that boys are working on. As a result, learning problems that girls may have are not identified and dealt with earlier within the classroom environment which leads to significant learning lags that last long into the future.
Girl-on-girl bullying is dismissed by teachers and school principals as something that does not happen; yet girls experience bullying daily. However, when boys bully each other it requires school-wide interventions to curb. The assumption for girls is that bullying is something they cannot experience because they are docile creatures. That abuse is acceptable if inflicted by other girls and women and thus perpetuates a culture of shaming and victim blaming.
There are numerous additional examples of how girls are sidelined, deprived of opportunities for learning and subjected to an inferior education experience due to teachers’ preference and a school administration that does not involve itself in a pro girl child agenda to education. This in addition to the societal and family limitations placed on girls’ education, young girls have to contend with discrimination and being treated as imposters in the classroom.
Therefore the foundation is working hard to overcome these challenges and level the playing field for girls. We are supporting young African girls realise their potential in STEM education with the hope that they be game changers in their communities. Thope Foundation’s mission is to contribute to an African society where women and girls have equal access to quality socio-economic opportunities to be healthy and productive citizens.
We decided to profile a few of the girls that we work with, and for the next four days, Bokamoso will be publishing their stories. Learn more about us at http://www.thopefoundation.org/.