“Educate a Woman, You Educate a Nation” – South Africa Aims to Improve its Education for Girls

LYS ANZIA – WNN Features

School girls, South Africa, 1980
Girls enter school building in South Africa, 1980

“Educate a woman, you educate a nation,” said Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the 4th annual Women’s Parliament Conference in Cape Town, Africa on Tuesday, 28 Aug. 2007, as she spoke out on the importance for girls education.

Working with Cape Town’s programs to improve conditions for women, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry, Elizabeth Thabethe, has started a new finance program to empower women entrepreneurs, “The Women Entrepreneurs Fund” which has been developed to help educate women to create businesses of their own to provide independence and education opportunities.

Education in Africa for women has faced a hard tide with a history of conservative patriarchal customs that have caused tribal cultures to many times marginalize girls education, placing it at the bottom of the list. Traditions of early marriage, women focusing on family management and less access to the use of information from today’s technology has created gender gaps in certain areas of Africa, especially the northern regions.

According to UN statistics, South Africa, of all African regions today, has the highest percentage of children who are given greater access to education at the primary level. Children attending school at the primary level go from 96% to 70% at the secondary level, then on to a drastic drop of 7% participation at the college level. Unfortunately participation for girls and women come in less numbers than these UN statistics show as many girls are kept from school to work and many girls marry and are encouraged to give up their education to have children.

UNICEF has also reported that despite improvements from a new democracy in 1994 which improved many economic conditions, education is still out of reach due to poverty and a 25.2 % unemployment rate. Opportunities for girls education on all levels are especially challenged as UNICEF reports, “Many schools are not child or girl friendly. Some are situated far from homes, exposing girls to danger when they walk to and from school. Girls trying to stay in school are also at risk of being sexually harassed and exploited in schools by teachers and fellow students.”

The unsettling 2006 Report of the Public Hearing on the Right to Basic Education states: “Of great concern were the accounts of teachers taking advantage of their positions of authority and coercing sex from girls. An example was given of a learner coming late and having to exchange sex with a teacher in order to be allowed onto the school premises that had been locked.”

Other very difficult conditions for girls are magnified as many schools do not have separate bathrooms for girls and boys – which leads to great vulnerability for girls in schools as they deal with low self-esteem in the face of the dangers of sexual harassments and assaults in non-supervised rooms.

School authorities rarely challenge the perpetrators, and many girls interrupt their education or leave school altogether because they feel vulnerable to sexual assault, Human Rights Watch said. “Girls are learning that sexual violence and abuse are an inescapable part of going to school every day — so they don’t go,” said Erika George, counsel to the Academic Freedom Program at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “South African officials say they’re committed to educational equality. If they mean it, they must address the problem of sexual violence in schools, without delay.”

Today the GEM – Girls Education Movement – is attempting to turn the tide that makes it so hard for girls to stay in school under the conditions described. GEM works to improve these conditions and to guide girls in school to continue on, especially to receive a higher education.

GEM is not a single organization, “but consists of groups of children and young people in schools and communities through Africa who are working in different ways to bring about positive changes in the lives of African girls.”

Education for girls and women has many positive effects. Girls learn and become more involved in society and leadership as they become women. Girls also gain more self-esteem from greater knowledge itself and greater access to knowledge.

GEM today is taking action to promote the education of math, science and all new technologies to girls to help them step into the modern world in ways that are active and encourage girls and women today to participate in the world.

In fulfilling a promise made six years ago to former President Nelson Mandela to help conditions for girls education in South Africa, American, Oprah Winfrey, has recently (Jan. 2, 2007) opened a school for “disadvantaged girls” in Johannesburg. “I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light,” Winfrey said.

Educating girls can help “change the face of a nation,” added Winfrey. “Girls who are educated are less likely to get HIV-AIDS, and in this country which has such a pandemic, we have to begin to change the pandemic.”

The Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering (SA WISE) is another association that works to encourage girls toward higher education to become scientists and engineers. Their hope is that, “Girls in Africa should be encouraged to take science subjects, not only those girls who might pursue a scientific or technological career, but also those who would then be enabled to apply scientific concepts in their daily lives. Taking science subjects should not only be seen as a vocation but as a means to develop the scientific and technological culture necessary for development.”

Sex education on the right to say no to sex and the dangers of HIV-AIDS is also very important for girls as they begin at a very young age to actively deal with the pressing issues of sex and rape. Lack of education puts girls and women on the front lines of HIV infection which destroys their life’s dreams and completely destabilizes their family structure.

“Education is a vital and basic right for all children,” says the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Education for girls gives women more power in society. This will enable girls and women to improve the conditions of living that many of them are still facing today in South Africa.

Power for women in South Africa today is created through the safe availability of greater education. The gaining of status for women as they gather a greater education offers a vast improvement in their own personal world and society. These improvements, too, improve life globally. These are the improvements that impact life at all levels today – for all people.


Out of 115 Million children in the world do not go to school, most are girls. This 1:13 min November 2006 video has been produced by UNICEF.org and UNGEI.org for the
United Nations Girls Education Initiative.


Sources for this article include MSNBC, Report of the Public Hearing on the Right to Basic Education, AllAfrica.com, UN World’s Women – Trends and Statistics 2000, UNICEF,4th Annual Women’s Parliament Conference Cape Town 2007, The Report of Public Hearing on the Right to Basic Education, GEM – Girls Education Movement, Human Rights Watch, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, YouTube UNICEF and South African Women in Science and Engineering.

2006 Pushcart Prize nominee, Lys Anzia, is a human rights journalist and editor-at-large for WNN — Women News Network. Her work focuses on writing news features for international women’s advocacy through WUNRN and UN-INSTRAW as well as other United Nations agencies and affiliates.

©2007 WNN – Women News Network