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Thursday, February 23, 2017
Violet Nakamba Mengo
- Naomi Mulenga is determined to beat the odds by finishing her school education and becoming a nurse – despite being a teenage mother. At 13, she is the mother of a seven-month-old baby she raises on her own since the father denies responsibility for the child.
Mulenga says she feels bitter about the turn of events in her life, especially because she also heads a household since her parents’ death in 2007, and takes care of a younger brother and sister.
Lack of parental guidance coupled with sexual inexperience and peer pressure landed Mulenga in the arms of a young man who promised her marriage, but instead made her pregnant and abandoned her.
Luckily, Mulenga’s teachers were understanding and encouraged her to attend school until she gave birth and to return after the delivery of the baby. She currently attends grade eight at Kanakashi Basic School in Kasama, in Zambia’s Northern Province, where she is one of the top pupils in her class.
“When the (exam) results came out in January, I was among the girls selected for grade eight. I was happy but also saddened because I did not have the money (to continue to go to school,” Mulenga recalled.
Mulenga says she is working extra hard to show other girls in similar situations that falling pregnant does not have to be the end of the road. While she is at school, her six-year-old sister takes care of the baby.
Deputy Minister of Education, Clement Sinyinda, explains the Re-Entry Policy tries to address gender inequalities that have disadvantaged girls from accessing education in the country for many years. The policy is part of a wider strategy to improve education for girls, he explained.
Until 1997, pregnant girls were expelled from Zambian schools, while teenage fathers were not held responsible.
The numbers of teenage pregnancies have been on a steady increase countrywide, according to the education department, with 9,111 reported pregnancies of school-going girls in 2005, compared to 12,370 in 2008.
But thanks to the financial support offered through the Re-entry Policy and the child support grant, more than a third of those teenage mothers returned to school after giving birth, the department noted.
“The ministry is seriously trying to address the challenges of girls becoming pregnant whilst in school,” promised Sinyinda. Apart from financial support, strategies include career guidance and counseling sessions, as well as sexual education, he says.
However, the deputy minister admitted that while the Re-entry Policy has helped to increase school enrolment of girls, achieving universal access to education for all still remains a big challenge – not only due to teenage pregnancy, but also because of widespread poverty.
To assist all poor children in the country, government offered almost 95,000 children in grades one to nine bursaries in 2008, with half of them being awarded to girls. This is a more than ten percent increase in bursaries since 2005.
“The provision of a bursary to support orphans and vulnerable children is another intervention to promote the participation of children who could not afford the cost of education,” Sinyinda explained.
Permanent secretary of the ministry of tourism, environment and natural resources, Lillian Kapulu, agrees that the Re-entry Policy needs to be combined with a more general educational grant to give all children a second chance at life. “It is difficult, in villages, for parents to find money for school fees and uniforms, so many force their children out of school after grade seven,” she said.
But despite the financial support, many teenage mothers continue to drop out of school because they find it difficult to balance their education and the obligations that come with being a parent, notes Kapulu.
Mulenga confirms that life has remained tough. The grant of 30 dollars a month is hardly enough to pay for the daily needs of her siblings, her baby and herself, she says. To put food on the table, she plants maize and vegetables on a small piece of land next to her house.
“It is difficult to be both a parent and a student, because sometimes you lose concentration, especially when the baby is not well and you are in school,” Mulenga told IPS.
Unfortunately, one additional avenue of support – an education programme for teenage mothers run by American non-profit organisation Family Health Trust (FHT) – was closed down at the end of last year.
FHT’s Community Health and Nutrition, Gender and Education Support (CHANGES) programme ran for three years and helped more than 3,500 teenage mothers to return to school, says FHT acting programmes manager Kilby Lungu.
“Since the closure of CHANGES, the girls have remained at the mercy of the school administration. A small percentage have been put on the (government) sponsorship, while a bigger percentage are struggling for school fees or dropped out completely,” he said.