LUSAKA, Zambia — The Zambian school system is fourfold: Pre-primary, Primary, High School or Secondary School and university or vocational higher education. Children attend pre-school between the age of three and six before beginning Basic Education, or Primary Education which is divided into three parts: grades one through four constitutes lower basic, grades five through seven from middle basic, and upper basic comprises grades eight and nine.
Following Primary School, students may go on to high school if they successfully pass their Primary exit examinations. However, most students do not proceed beyond Primary School. Many, in fact, do not even complete Primary School. Although it continually progresses, education in Zambia is still stagnated by high drop-out rates.
Due to a very small economic tax base, the Zambian government only provides Primary Education. High schools require tuition, and enrollment necessarily suffers. According to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), while 80 percent of Zambian children make use of government-funded Primary School, a mere 7 percent continue into high school. College attendance is even rarer.
Initial enrollment in Primary Education is on the rise. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, there was more than a 10 percent improvement in the proportion of the population attending school. That being said, nearly half the students who begin Primary Education do not finish, and certain groups find staying in school especially challenging. Children from poor and rural households, orphans and girls consistently enroll late and drop out early. These children only very exceptionally go on to attend high school.
About 61 percent of the Zambian population lives in rural areas in which access to schools is extremely limited. These are farming communities with widely dispersed homes, and most students walk for hours a day to and from school, usually barefoot.
Students who make the trek to the village schools arrive at mud huts which frequently lack books, desks, chalk, pencils and sometimes even teachers. Indeed, supply and retention of qualified teachers remain one of the greatest challenges to education in Zambia, particularly in rural areas.
Rural and impoverished students often cannot afford the mandatory school uniforms, which was once grounds for expulsion. However, the recently instituted Free Primary Education (FPE) Policy bars schools from denying education access on the basis of uniform possession and enables more students of low-income to attend school.
Approximately 1.2 million Zambian children are considered orphaned and vulnerable (OVC), rendering consistent school attendance even more challenging. This mass orphaning of Zambia’s children is largely due to HIV and AIDS. The U.N.’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) works with the Ministry of Education, implementing programming on HIV prevention in 60 percent of Primary Schools. Meanwhile, organizations like the UK-based Cecily’s Fund enable OVC to attend school by providing the cost of uniforms, books, and shoes at the primary level and financing tuition for Secondary Education. Likewise, Brighter Futures Zambia supports OVC education through sponsorship of individual children.
Girls from rural areas are perhaps the most likely to drop out of Primary School. Teenage pregnancy is the leading cause of primary school drop-outs; from 2010 to 2015 more than 15,000 school-aged girls reported pregnancy, most in rural areas.
Soaring teen pregnancy rates in Zambia are due to several factors. As a result of the geographic isolation of village schools in rural areas, female students often relocate to poorly equipped boarding houses, which are consistently targeted by sexual predators. Additionally, huge numbers of teen pregnancies take on a new momentum as a trend. Apparent by their frequency to be in fashion, many teen pregnancies are intentional.
As well as high risks of HIV contraction and staggering maternal mortality rates, teenage pregnancy in Zambia often effectively ends young women’s schooling. The Ministry of Education’s Re-Entry Policy requires schools to re-admit girls who drop out due to pregnancy after they give birth.
Several non-profits have emerged to support girls’ education in Zambia. Bakashana, for instance, provides fiscal and social resources to young women in rural Zambia who have completed primary school that they may continue into secondary school.
Camfed, another non-profit, funds the education of young women and mobilizes their communities to keep them in school. Camfed elevates the education of girls to fight poverty across Sub-Saharan Africa. According to UNICEF, “education is not only a human right, but it is also an essential tool for individuals to break the poverty cycle.” Camfed purports that the education of girls is the “silver bullet” that prompts social change, alleviating infant and maternal mortality, lifting families out of poverty, and driving economic growth.
– Robin Lee