GENDER FOCUS with EMELDA MWITWA
THE partial re-opening of schools today comes barely a week after adolescents and health experts decried the negative impact of the prolonged school holiday on adolescents, especially girl children.
In a virtual conference jointly organised by the National HIV/AIDS/STI/TB Council (NAC) and GIZ, participants shared that the COVID-19 pandemic was having a negative effect on adolescents and young people (AYP) because of the closure of schools, stay-home rules which prevent kids from going out to interact with their peers, and being locked up in homes, sometimes with abusive family members.
Schools are important havens in communities because this is where children go to learn different skills, interact with peers and expend their excess energy through play and sports activities.
In school, children are guaranteed of some form of protection from risky sexual behaviour, sexual predators, child labour and many forms of child abuse.
So apart from being places where children obtain knowledge, schools are safe places that keep AYP busy, hence protecting them from getting initiated into social vices such as alcohol and drug abuse, transactional sex and other types of risky sexual behaviour.
Unwanted pregnancies, child marriage and child labour also come in and take a sharp rise when AYP are not in school.
Because AYP have been confined to their homes or communities for about six weeks, it is feared that not being in school where they are kept busy and protected from different forms of child abuse and social vices, some of them may not return to schools.
Some children may drop out of school due to pregnancy, while others may be married and others still could get exposed to risky sexual behaviour which could increase their vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV and AIDs.
As a matter of fact, the almost seven months closure of schools last year when COVID-19 was just reported in Zambia, resulted in both girls and boys dropping out of schools.
Although we do not know yet how many children dropped out of school after the COVID-induced long holiday, information from rural areas indicates that some girls got pregnant and others got married during that period.
As for the boy children, we do not know why they dropped out of school. Perhaps some got married too, while others joined other children that are trapped in child labour because they needed to supplement family incomes that have been dwindling due to the current economic downturn.
As some learners return to school today, I hope that there wouldn’t be many casualties of teen pregnancies and early marriage. Obviously, some children may not return to school due to many factors, but I hope that the school authorities will make follow-ups and find ways of helping those that may be in need.
Pregnant girls must not be written off but given chance and moral support to continue schooling before and after maternity leave.
Quite already, the re-entry policy gives young mothers the right to return to school after maternity leave, but oftentimes, such girls fail to cope when they go back because of the hostility from fellow pupils and academic staff.
Giving girls a second chance at education does not in any way encourage promiscuity among schoolchildren, but rather gives them an opportunity to introspect and right their wrongs. The policy also gives girl children another opportunity to acquire knowledge and be able to live better lives in future.
As a matter of fact, schools have teachers that counsel and monitor the young mothers when they return to school. Therefore, I see no need why some people want them banished and punished for the rest of their lives.
For now, it’s kudos to the ministries of General Education and Health for providing leadership that has resulted in the reopening of schools.
However, Government needs to make sure that the schools that our children are returning to comply with COVID-19 protocols to guarantee the safety of learners and academic staff.
Regular inspections of institutions of learning should be done to prevent over-crowding in classrooms and ensure compliance to all the health guidelines.
Although grades one up to six, including eighth graders, are not opening school yet, it is gratifying to see the children return to school today as the third wave of COVID-19 shows signs of slowing.
Hopefully, the other category of learners will soon be returning to school too if we do not drop our guard against the coronavirus pandemic.
Returning to school today are all pupils in boarding schools, except for grade eights. As for day scholars in secondary schools, it is the ninth, 11th and 12th graders that have opened school. In primary school, it is only grade sevens that are going back to school today because, as we know, they will be writing exams in November. Government has made it clear that examinations will not be postponed, understandably so to avoid an education crisis that could arise if grades seven, nine and 12 do not graduate.
“The decision to open these classes will enable exam classes to adequately prepare for their final examinations. It may be recalled that these classes were last year out of school for seven months when the pandemic first broke out and further extension of the closure of these classes would be disastrous for the nation.
“Further, there is urgent need to catch up on the lost hours of work in order to cover up the national syllabus to which primary and secondary schools are subjected during national examinations. If closure of schools was extended, it would be more difficult to manage the transition,” Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services Permanent Secretary Amos Malupenga said when announcing the reopening of schools on Monday.
As we await the safe return to school of the remaining children (grades 1-6, 8 and 10), we need to find ways of letting them receive some form of education services remotely.
I know for sure that efforts are being made to provide distance learning through radio, television and web-based platforms where past examination papers and written lectures are shared. Some schools have been sending reading materials and homework to learners through social media.
Unfortunately, not every child in primary and secondary has access to remote learning platforms due to the cost implications (of DStv, gadgets and data bundles) and lack of ICT skills.
The other way of keeping the learners busy as they wait to return to school is by providing them with textbooks at home and giving them free time to study.
Parents and guardians should make sure not to over-burden both girls and boys with domestic work at the expense of studying. There is also need to keep the children away from unsafe places where they are likely to be harmed sexually, emotionally and physically.
Keeping our children safe and ensuring that they continue learning during these unpredictable times of the coronavirus pandemic, is the core responsibility of parents and guardians.
GENDER FOCUS with EMELDA MWITWA