Education is a basic human right and key to improving people’s quality of life. Despite this fact, millions of women and girls worldwide lack the same access to quality education as men and boys, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa, however, is unique. Though there is still much progress to be made in ensuring gender equality in education in the country, these facts about girls’ education in South Africa can provide a model for other sub-Saharan countries.
Facts About Girls’ Education in South Africa
- In many African countries, far more boys attend school than girls. In South Africa, primary school enrollment rates are roughly equal: from 2008-2012, the primary school enrollment rate for boys was 89.7 percent; for girls, it was 90.9 percent.
- However, these enrollment rates hide the large racial disparities that exist in South Africa’s education system. Though South Africa has made progress in reducing racial discrimination since the end of apartheid (a system of extreme racial segregation and discrimination that lasted from 1948-1994), racial inequality is still persistent. In general, black girls are at a severe disadvantage compared to white girls in receiving quality education.
- One reason for the racial disparities in South Africa’s education system is the racial disparity in poverty. In 2015, 27.9 percent of black Africans were unemployed compared to 7 percent of white people. The poverty rate for Africans is 38 times higher than that of whites. Millions of people classified as black or colored under apartheid live in townships and informal settlements in extreme poverty, while a majority of whites live in cities and nice suburbs. This racial inequality is detrimental to non-white girls trying to achieve the same education as white girls and boys.
- Girls are also at a disadvantage in attaining quality education because of the patriarchal nature of South African society. Women occupy a lower social status than men and are socialized to work in the home and be mothers. This deemphasizes the importance of receiving an education.
- At around 7.1 million, South Africa has the most people living with HIV/AIDs in the world. This figure is more than double the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, the country with the second highest HIV/AIDS population. Girls and women are four times more likely to be HIV-positive than boys and men, which may lead them to drop out of school. Girls are also often forced to drop out of school to care for family members living with HIV/AIDS which limits girls’ opportunities to pursue careers that could lift them out of poverty.
- The rate of crime in the townships in which millions live, particularly gender-based violence, is extremely high compared to those in the suburbs of major cities. Many schools are far from children’s homes, forcing children to walk long distances to school. This exposes girls to the risk of violence on their travels to and from school.
- Violence against girls in school is a serious issue in South Africa. Girls face sexual harassment and assault in schools from both fellow students and teachers. These occurrences cause girls to fear going to school, and some to stop going altogether. Girls cannot learn well under these circumstances.
- Various programs have been developed to work to improve girls’ education in South Africa. One is the Girls Education Movement (GEM), which was launched in South Africa in 2003. The program aims to give girls equal access to education, make schools safer for girls and improve the quality of girls’ education. GEM is run via school-based, boys and girls clubs and has been implemented in each of South Africa’s nine provinces.
- Technogirls is a project that works to support girls in pursuing careers in math, science and technology — typically male-dominated fields. Girls from rural disadvantaged communities are given priority in the selection process. Girls who are selected become interns in various companies and enter a mentoring and skills development program with scholarship opportunities.
- The United Nations Educational and Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) works to ensure that every person has access to a quality education. The continent of Africa and gender equality are two of UNESCO’s top global priorities, and UNESCO is active in promoting gender equality in South Africa’s education system.
Room for Growth
Successful girls and women are critical to furthering the development of developing countries such as South Africa. For girls to be successful, they need equal access to a quality education. Though there are many challenges among these facts about girls’ education in South Africa, GEM, Technogirls and UNESCO are making strides in the right direction.
These initiatives not only improve girls’ education in South Africa, but they also provide an example by which other developing countries can improve their education systems for girls.
– Laura Turner