Africa, Headlines

EDUCATION-ZAMBIA: An Unlikely Heroine Speaks for Young Girls

Lewis Mwanangombe

LUSAKA, Feb 24 1998 (IPS) - Sara, a fictional character, is the most unlikely of heroines. All she does is to try and convince her uncle that she should stay in school.

But in a country like Zambia, where the education of girls still lags far behind that of boys because of age-old traditions and culture, Sara, to many people’s surprise, has become a big hit.

Sara’s adventures are no different from those of many young Zambian girls. “We can only afford to keep one child in school and of course that will be your brother,” Sara’s uncle tells her.

The Sara Communications Initiative developed by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for Eastern and Southern Africa with the help of artists from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Kenya, has hit home in Zambia, because Sara has problems which are well known in both urban and rural areas.

UNICEF Information and Communications Officer, Victor Chinyama, says when Sara was introduced to test audiences recently, people identified with her plight to exercise her right to education.

According to Michael Kelly of the School of Education, University of Zambia, less than two-thirds of girls in the rural areas attend primary school, while fewer than 17 percent are in junior secondary classes and only four percent in senior secondary schools.

Nationally, for every 100 girls who enter Grade One in Zambia, only seven may finally sit for the Grade 12 School Certificate examination and out of 1000 girls who enrol for Grade One, only two might proceed to university.

Kelly contrasts this scenario with statistics for boys — out of 100 boys who begin Grade One, 15 will sit for their School Certificate exams, and out of 1000 who begin Grade One, 10 will eventually enter university.

In co-educational secondary schools, 37.5 percent of total admissions are girls, while boys comprise more than 60 percent of all admissions.

The majority of those training to be teachers in this Southern African nation also are men. Fifty-one percent of those in primary teacher training colleges are men, while in teacher training colleges for secondary schools, 65 percent of the trainees are men.

And, at the University of Zambia and the Copperbelt University, 80 percent of the students are males.

“The image of the girl child in Zambia is that of a passive, submissive person who remains quietly in the background, the first to serve and the last to speak,” says Kelly.

“This image is strongly reflected in textbooks that are still in use in schools. What is amiss is not that the girl child does not count, but that she counts less than a boy child,” Kelly adds.

In this male-dominated society, girls and women have to fight for their rights on all fronts. Even after obtaining a school certificate, college diploma or university degree, Zambian women enter a labour force that considers her earnings as only a supplement to her husband’s.

But inspite of the negative attitudes towards the education of girls, Sara has been welcomed like a prodigal daughter.

“Her story has a very important message and it is based on real life situations,” says Gideon Phiri who saw the video about Sara.

“How many uncles can we count even here in Chawama (a high density area in Lusaka) who have squandered resources of their dead brothers without regard for the welfare of the children? Except in Sara’s case, the uncle squandered the money while his brother was away to work in town.”

Miriam Chanda, who also watched the show, believes it was “an act of God” that Sara was given by her teacher a book, which enabled her to build a energy-saving stove, which, in the end, wins her support from the uncle who initially had wanted her to stop formal education.

The twist in the tale is the return of Sara’s father and the public unmasking of the uncle who misused money meant for Sara’s education, and who almost won a council seat out of Sara’s stove invention.

Chinyama of UNICEF says Sara is a big multi-media project, which includes the animated video film, produced in seven episodes; a 13-part radio series for broadcast in English; comic books; supplementary school readers; posters; short stories; drama; music and puppetry.

Later, there will be games, textiles and ceramics, and Chinyama says Sara can easily become a cult figure. But it is hoped that as Sara moves around rural Zambia, her story will change attitudes and improve the educational levels of girls.

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