What Does Safe Education Really Mean?

Hearing the theme of the 16 days of activism against gender based violence this year - ‘From peace in the home to peace in the world: make education safe for all’ reminded me of a girl irecently met, Mwakaita is her name, she is 20 years old.  A bright, vivacious young woman, who never really got a fair deal in this world. She is a divorcee with a beautiful 4 year old daughter. I asked why she got married so early,  because to me she was far too young to be a divorced mother. This is her story as she narrated it to me:

I grew up in a rural community in Zimbabwe, my parents had 5 children and I am the eldest. As a girl growing up I had to fight really hard to be able to go to school. I had to wake up very early to help my mother clean, fetch water and in the rainy season plough the land before going to school. 

Sometimes I felt guilty leaving the house when I could see my mother was clearly overwhelmed with her household chores but I was fighting for a better life. It was a long walk to school and sometimes the river would be flooded  so I had to miss school as we couldn’t cross, but this did not deter me. I always managed to catch up with my school work. The biggest challenge came when I had to go to secondary school. The school was 12km away. After a while the walk became too much and when I was 14 years old I stopped going altogether and just stayed at home and helped my parents with the chores. When I was 16 years old I got married but the marriage didn't last. I went back home and I am still there today.

Hearing stories like Mwaka’s as she is affectionately called, makes me think what safe education really means. As we commemorate the 16 days of activism against gender based violence I wonder what safe education is for the millions of the Mwakas in Zimbabwe? 

To me safe education means availing the schools and all that is necessary for girls to get a chance at education. Why did Mwaka have to walk 12km everyday to be able to get to school? What are the dangers she encountered everyday as a young woman walking that treacherous terrain daily? Should we be surprised after a year of walking that distance that the young woman gave up on education? If we are to be honest about her situation, it’s no surprise because no one should have to pay such a price to access education. It’s also no surprise that after two years of being ‘idle’ she thought marriage was an option to get out of her situation. Our society creates an illusion of marriage as a high achievement that every girl should aspire to..

Mwaka is young, she has time to remedy any of her mistakes and do something with her life - or so I thought, but she did not think so. She has a four year old daughter now, who she has to provide for, and going back to school and furthering her education is now just a dream. She got me thinking about child marriage and if we constantly campaign to end this practice what opportunities are we availing for these victims?  There are ‘second chance’ education opportunities, but who should pay for this? Do we expect these young women who are struggling to make ends meet to also find funds to go back to school?   

The more I thought about Mwaka and the many young women like her the more I asked if we are moving at all from talk to action? We have identified a problem but what have we done about it in the last three years? How do we keep girls in school when the cost of education is going up and not down? How do we keep them in school when some still have to walk 12kms to access education? How do we keep them in school when they are not a priority in our budgeting as a nation? How do protect them from violence in schools from fellow students and teachers?

Safe education entails self introspection of our existing processes and acknowledging where we have failed and correcting where we have done wrong. Until then we will have more sad stories like Mwakas and more girls born into this vicious cycle of poverty and lack of education.

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