MWAPE MWENYA & PRISCILLA MWILA, Lusaka
EVERY year, countries around the world observe October 11 as an important day as it symbolises the importance of girl-children.
The International Day of the Girl Child is an international observance day declared by the United Nations in 2012.
The observation supports more opportunity for girls and increases awareness of gender inequality faced by girls worldwide based on their gender.
This inequality includes areas such as right to education/access to education, nutrition, legal rights, medical care, and protection from discrimination, violence against women and unfree child marriage.
A number of policies and interventions have been pronounced in an effort to protect the lives of girls and ensure that they have access to important social amenities.
It is against this background that Zambia like any other country commemorated this day with a call to increase access to education.
To ensure equal access to education, Government through the 2017 national budget has announced that it will embark on a free distribution of sanitary towels in peri-urban and rural schools countrywide.
Minister of Finance Felix Mutati announced during the budget presentation that the programme will for the first time support 14,000 girls from vulnerable households in 16 districts by providing requisites to retain them in school.
He said in Zambia, like in many parts of Africa, reproductive health matters are treated as a taboo and with silence. This limits girlsâ€™ access to education as some fail to go to school due to lack of proper sanitary towels. In order to increase and retain attendance of girls in schools, Government will in 2017 commence distribution of free sanitary towels to girls in rural and peri-urban areas.
This move has cheered a number of stakeholders, especially women movements whose core mandate is centred on the improvement of girlsâ€™ welfare.
The Forum for African Women Educationists of Zambia (FAWEZA) executive director Agness Mumba praised Government for its decision stating that it will increase girlsâ€™ attendance in schools.
Meanwhile, Zambia National Union of Teachers (ZNTU) general secretary Newman Bubala implored Government to ensure that the programme benefits the intended recipients without discrimination.
Mr Bubala said Government should ensure that all sanitary towels are accounted for before the programme commences to avoid mismanagement and diversion.
And Ministry of General Education spokesperson Hillary Chipango said the move will increase girlsâ€™ access to education.
â€œThis is the greatest thing in the education sector; issues of menses have been the major challenge for girls especially in rural areas. The programme will enhance accessibility to education,â€ Mr Chipango said.
This move has proved that Zambia is committed to improving education for girls so as to deter them from getting married at a tender age.
Coming to early, child, and forced marriages, Zambia was in 2015 accorded an opportunity to host the first ever Girls Summit on child marriages.
This opportunity could not have come at a better time than this considering the fact that 2015 recorded 42 percent of child marriages.
President Lungu, who officiated at the summit, said his interest is to see an end to the scourge and not only reducing it.
Over 40 African countries that were represented at the summit, adopted the good practises that were discussed to ensure child, forced and early marriages come to an end.
Among the good practises include, increasing access to education for girls, constructing more schools so as to reduce on distance, reducing school fees in government institutions to allow for equal access to education, ensuring universal access to quality health careÂ among others.
Zambia is already showing commitment to a number of good practises because it has constructed a good number of primary and secondary schools countrywide.
Government has also constructed the Robert Makasa University in Chinsali district in Muchinga province. All this symbolises the importance Zambia attaches to education.
In addition, Government has put in place various institutions to look at issues that affect children. Such institutions include; Ministry of Community Development and Social Welfare whose mandate is to provide and promote quality social welfare services aimed at alleviating poverty, reducing destitution, promoting family values and reducing juvenile delinquency while the Ministry of Justice deals with matters to do with justice, the rule of law, and the legislative protection of human rights and freedoms in Zambia.
Recent surveys conducted by PANOS institute southern Africa (PSAf) revealed that poverty has led many parents to withdraw their daughters from school and offer them for marriage to older men (in most cases) in exchange for bride price.
In addition to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, complications of early motherhood, early marriages affect the social wellbeing of girls who go through child, early and forced marriage and deny them the right to enjoy their childhood.
Like other organisations, PANOS Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) has come on board to work with Government institutions in ensuring that childrenâ€™s rights are safeguarded if the fight against early marriages is to succeed.
PSAf senior programme officer for media development and ICT, Gillies Kasongo said there is need to support rural based child protection interventions to secure a bright future for children.
â€œWe as PSAf have been facilitating increased discussions on the importance of strengthening child protection in communities. We have also been stimulating policy dialogue and debate for effective child protection policy implementation so that both the authorities and the community can work together to protect children,â€ he said.
Traditional leaders have not been idle in the fight as is the case with Senior Chief Kopa of the Bisa people in Mpika who has started sponsoring girls who got marriage at an early age to go back to school.
Chief Kopa said educating children is securing a better future for Zambia because they are future leaders.
â€œWe have started carrying out sensitisation in our chiefdom on the importance of education. We have also started taking girls who were married at an early age back to school. We want them to finish school and become an asset to our chiefdom,â€ he said.
And chief Chikanta of the Tonga people in Kalomo district said his chiefdom has withdrawn over 10 girls from marriages and sponsored them to school.
He has urged Government to facilitate exchange programmes among chiefdoms countywide to share ideas on possible interventions to end early marriages.
MWAPE MWENYA & PRISCILLA MWILA, Lusaka