Girls’ Education is a global campaign with a long history, on par with voting rights and national self-determination. Across the continent, women’s rights activists advocate for, and provide comprehensive girls’ education within their own communities. Three feminist activists, who belong to organizations from the Gender-Based Violence Prevention Network (GBV-NET), a group of over 500 activists and practitioners committed to preventing violence against women in 18 countries across Africa, spoke about their experiences innovating practical social policy that promote girls’ and young women’s education in their respective countries.

Demanding Structural Shifts to Build Girls’ Life Skills in Zambia

The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Zambia, part of a worldwide network which functions independently and nationally, has pioneered interventions to counter violence against women in Zambia.

These interventions include a panoply of activities, including awareness-raising through community theatre, as well as print, electronic and social media, and establishing safe spaces where adolescent girls meet under the guidance of a mentor where they are equipped with life skills such as decision making, goal setting, negotiation, self esteem, and more.

“Life skills building is a key element as this helps them to acquire skills which enable them to make informed choices as they face day to day challenges,” said Patricia Ndhlovu, Executive Director of the YWCA, who has been a vocal advocate against gender-based violence in Zambia’s national media.

In addition to recognizing the structural barriers that discourage girls and young women from accessing education and livelihoods over the course of their lives, the YWCA has observed a link between girls’ and young women’s education and their risk of facing violence.

Ndhlovu explained that educating young girls and women reduces their vulnerability to violence, particularly when they are aware of their rights and are able to claim them (a well-worn fact in social policy circles). The 2013-2014 Zambian Demographic and Health Survey revealed that the women who face the most violence have a primary school education (50%) and those who face the least have a secondary education (29%).

Encouraged by the fact that the Government of Zambia has passed an Anti-Gender Act in 2011, which theoretically provides a base for the protection of women’s rights, Ndhlovu affirms nonetheless the need for her government to implement multifaceted programmes to support this law.

“They should also provide bursaries for girls in secondary schools from poor families and support through initiatives such as social cash transfers need to be scaled up to benefit more vulnerable households. Economic empowerment initiatives are required to enable such households generate income so that they do not see marrying off young girls as a means to make income for their families.”

Striving for Gender-Sensitive Learning Ecosystems in Kenya

The Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW) has been advocating for more conducive and safe learning environments for girls in Kenya.

“An educated girl has more opportunities for employment and is likely to have an impact on future generations, she is more likely to have a late sexual debut, raise healthy children and support her children in obtaining an education,” explained Dr. Joan Nyanyuki, the Executive Director of COVAW.

Recognizing that learning is influenced by societal inequalities, COVAW advocates for policies and guidelines that protect girls (and in particular, children with intellectual disabilities who particularly face violence in institutions).

“Through such cases COVAW has been able to advocate for policies and guidelines and therefore advocate for the effective dissemination and implementation of policies that protect the girl child,” explained Dr. Joan Nyanyuki, the Executive Director of COVAW.

COVAW uses SASA!, a community mobilization approach developed by Raising Voices that supports the retention of girls in schools by engaging communities in dialogue aimed at transforming attitudes. SASA! is innovative in that the community generates solutions from within, rather than adopting external answers.

“They target, through this process, dynamics that undermine girl’s education. The community is encouraged to identify alternatives to support and create a conducive environment for girls to attain education,” added Nyanyuki.

Developing a Gender Equality Curriculum in Ethiopia

The Setaweet  (meaning “of woman” in Amharic) Movement in Ethiopia, was founded in 2014 with the view to transform Ethiopian culture from within. Setaweet, the brainchild of Ethiopian feminists, was the first institution to launch a feminist curriculum for high schoolers. This curriculum, a first for Setaweet, invites students to think critically about gender inequality through the lens of their own experience.

“The idea came with the formation of Setaweet, and with the recognition that most often, masculinities and femininities are formed at the formative teenage years, making it the ideal time to reach the future leaders of Ethiopia with the messages and tools of gender equality. The process to develop the curriculum has been iterative, and has seen many additions and adaptations from similar projects,” said Dr Sehin Teferra, a scholar and activist at the helm of Setaweet.

Teferra launched the curriculum in the belief that girls’ and women’s access to education is a basic human right and a necessary condition to redressing power imbalances. She affirms that to target these imbalance, the current education system requires policy measures.

“Girls’ and women’s access to education is, of course, a basic human right and a necessary condition to redressing power imbalances. However, education is not enough by itself to bring about equality, and needs to be supplemented by gender equality policies and a structural shift in gender norms,” she added.

One year after its inception, the Setaweet team conducted a pre-test of the curriculum in 2015 at a small secondary school which allowed them to glean lessons on what works or work in terms of implementation. With this pilot, they expected to shift gender dynamics within the two “ecosystems” of the schools participating in the project and to reduce incidences of violence in tangible ways. She affirms that, whatever their methods, they are grounding their actions within the community.

According to Dr Teferra, this method has taught them many valuable lessons on what works and does not work when it comes to implementing the curriculum. She maintains that the expected impact is to shift the gender dynamics within the schools participating in the project and to reduce incidences of violence in tangible ways.

“What keeps Setaweet alive is the fact that it is an idea whose time has come. Ethiopian women (and sometimes men) contact us frequently asking to get involved or join in the discussions, and Setaweet members have already taken their activism to new levels.”

They plan to roll out the curriculum in 2018, starting with a pilot project in Addis Ababa.

The need for the comprehensive education of girls

These initiatives that support girls’ education represent a mere fraction of the actions initiated by African feminists around the continent–contexts and solutions vary. With the long term goal of supporting the leadership of young girls, it is essential that the comprehensive education of girls, and the provision of safe spaces for their learning is centred, and fully supported by governments and duty bearers. The work of organisations like YWCA in Zambia who put pressure on their governments to reinforce their laws with programming, or Setaweet in Ethiopia who supplement their national curriculum, and COVAW in Kenya who transform minds within their own communities show us the many ways in which this can be done, and are ideas which should be supported and scaled up.

This article is published as part of the GBV Prevention Network‘s online activism stream of work. The GBV Prevention Network is coordinated by Raising Voices.