Fighting tradition, girls yearn to learn

Mozambique's government has teamed up with private organizations to help educate the country's young women.

At 15, Cândida José, a shy girl in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and bare feet, is the youngest of 21 children and the only one of her siblings to make it to the fifth grade. Most girls in this rural outpost of Mozambique – 20 miles from the nearest major town over a rugged unpaved road – don't go to school at all.

"In terms of educating women, Mozambique is really going through a process that other Southern African countries went through years ago," said Cooper Dawson, chief of UNICEF Mozambique's education section. "The question is: Why is Mozambique so delayed? The answer is that the civil war absolutely destroyed the education sector."

The United Nations estimates that 70 percent of the country's primary schools were destroyed during 16 years of civil war. Most were burned or bombed by the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO) rebel group as they tried to topple the post-independence Marxist government. RENAMO targeted every kind of government property, including schools.

In the almost 10 years since peace, however, the government has worked to entice students back into their classrooms and now says that between 80 to 90 percent of elementary-age children are in school.

Boa Vista, a three-roomed concrete building with six teachers and a stick hut used for the first grade, has certainly felt the impact of this return. Enrollment here has blossomed to more than 800 students from just over 200 in a few short years.

But efforts to educate women have lagged. Although the numbers of younger girls in classes at Boa Vista and other rural elementary schools are about even with that of boys, by the third or fourth grade, most girls drop out. Cândida, for example, is one of only eight girls in a class of 62.

The biggest problem, educators say, is that most girls in rural areas are married when they reach their early teens. Even families that don't marry their daughters off early hesitate to invest in the future of their girls, since they will inevitably go to live in the homes of their husbands. "The marriages are really a problem," says Boa Vista's headmaster Augusto Xavier. "When a girl turns 10 or 12 years old, she has to go live with her husband."

Improving education of women has become one of the highest priorities for Mozambique's government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in the education sector. Across the country, nonprofits such as Save the Children Norway, which is working at Boa Vista, are using newly founded parents' associations to try to teach parents about the importance of sending their children to school.

"The idea is to get the parents who are already sending their girls to school to go out into the community and explain that to others," says Ana Dulce Guizado, program director. "It's a kind of sensitization for the parents, led by parents."

Although the program has had some successes, including students like Cândida and Eva Sozinho – a 10-year-old first-grader who is the first girl in her family to go to school – efforts to convince parents of the need to educate their girls are often hindered by cultural beliefs about the status of women.

Women in Mozambique usually remain in the home. Some parents worry that if their girls go to school, they might be lured into prostitution or be sexually abused by teachers. Others fear that if their daughters are too educated, prospective husbands will feel challenged and won't want to marry them.

To counter these views, aid workers and parent educators try to use language that rural parents understand. They argue that an educated girl will receive a higher lobola, or bride-price, and that girls who receive educations will be better able to support their parents in the future.

Lack of capacity in the Mozambique school system is also hindering efforts to expand education to more women. As more girls come to school, there are not enough teachers or classrooms to educate them. A month into the new school year, there is still no teacher for Eva's class. Xavier, who normally teaches the fifth-graders, occasionally gives lessons to the more than 50 first-graders, most of whom go barefoot and wear tattered clothes. For the rest of the day, however, the students simply wait at extra desks outside the school building or in their stick classroom, which has no blackboard or walls, and only crude wooden benches for seating.

Cândida, who wants to be a teacher, is also running up against Mozambique's lack of education capacity. She has reached the limit of Boa Vista's curriculum, and to go to sixth grade, she will have to go to another school 10 miles away. To continue her education beyond the seventh grade, she must go to a boarding school in the nearest major city, Chimoio, which is 20 miles away. Only a handful of students from this area, all boys, have ever done that.

But she is determined to continue her education and says, even if she marries, she will keep going to school. "Going to school is much more fun than working at home," she confides.

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