Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs

EDUCATION-ZAMBIA: Bicycles Help Girls Go Further

Lewis Mwanangombe

NDAPULA, Zambia, Sep 6 2009 (IPS) - Nine kilometres each way, rain or shine: That’s how far Suzanne Chisulo has to travel to school each day.

Chisulo is one of 120 girls who faced problems getting to the Ndapula Community School. Many of the girls were missing lessons at least twice a week.

Hey, that's my bike

Moses Nyeleti, who owns a village grocery store in Kalimakwenda village, observed that the bike will not only enable his daughter Agnes to get to school quickly, it will also help him bring merchandise to the family shop, ferry farm produce to market more easily, fetch water from the borehole in the next village and take sick relatives to the clinic.

But the bikes are 'encumbered property' in the sense that they are not supposed to be abused. "To come this far I had to ask for permission from my daughter and explain the significance of the trip," Nyeleti explained.

Andrew Chengo, a cotton farmer from Chikwampu village, whose ten-year-old son is also a recipient of a bicycle, added that the bikes are at no time to be used on beer excursions.

"The moment they find you parked outside a tavern or bar they will confiscate it. You cannot also use it to move bags of charcoal to market," Chengo declared adding, "this bicycle is governed by rules!"

“You can’t blame them for staying away,” Amos Muliswa, coordinator of the school in Ndapula sympathises, pointing at the undulating hills shrouded in the blue mist of distance. “That is where Suzanne and other girls come from, in Kapilipili village, which is nine kilometres from here.”

Distance was the factor that prompted Muliswa and a handful of parents, among them village headmen Kachepa, Chikwampu, Chitumbo and Kalimakwenda, to start the school in 2003. The nearest school then was 30 kilometres away.

It is estimated that only 20 percent of children who enter primary school in rural Zambia eventually complete Grade 12. The main reason for this is the long distances they must travel to and from school. Girls like Chisulo face the additional risk of being raped en route to class.

“Some children walk up to 20 kilometres each day to school and back; in all they spend more than five hours on the road. During this time they are open to verbal abuse, insults and even physical attack if they are girls,” Zambia’s deputy minister of education, Clement Sinyinda, told IPS.

The situation is not peculiar to Zambia, but to rural Africa as a whole. The impact, especially on girls, of dropping out of school early is severe.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that around the world, girls who go far with their formal education not only earn higher incomes, they are more likely to take their children for immunisation, provide better nutrition and experience lower rates of maternal and child mortality when compared to peers who fail to complete primary school.

Zambian academic Elizabeth Mumba notes that girls who complete higher education are empowered “to fully participate in and benefit from the economic and social development of the nation” in addition to being able to protect themselves better from HIV/AIDS.

Kazuko Otsu, a visiting researcher from Japan’s Hokkaido University of Education, observed that in Zambia “long distances between homes and schools, and the shortage of proper sanitation for girls could be major factors that affect the supply side. In addition sexual harassment by older boys and male teachers seems to be serious in some schools.”

It is to help girls avoid this fate that Chicago-based World Bicycle Relief has come to Africa with an initiative that will greatly help more girls complete at least Grade 9 of formal education.

Ndapula Community School recently became the first school on the continent to benefit from this programme when a truckload of 100 bicycles arrived for distribution – mostly to girls from remote villages. Suzanne Chisulo was among the first recipients.

“Before I got a bicycle, I used to wake up at 4 a.m. in order for me and my friends arrive at school before 7 a.m. when classes start. This journey was especially bad because sometimes you could find bad boys who used to chase us and force those whom they caught do bad things,” Chisulo explained with a lot of embarrassment.

Rita Daka, an orphan who lives with her grandmother at Kapilipili village admitted that before she got a bicycle she was usually so exhausted after walking to and from school that she would feel like not going back to school the following day.

“With the new bicycle I am now able to attend school regularly,” she said. The project is off to an auspicious start.

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