“I was out of school for many years. When I heard about KGS [Keeping Girls in School], I went to register my name because I looked at how my life had turned after dropping out of school. I was suffering and had lost hope. The [Government] officer came to ask me, I agreed and I told him I wanted to go back to school.” (A beneficiary of Keeping Girls in School Initiative, Mungwi District)
Stories of adolescent girls dropping out of school are ubiquitous, but stories of them coming back are less common. The Government of Zambia is working to change this through the Keeping Girls in School (KGS) initiative, which provides bursaries to secondary school girls from poor households benefitting from social cash transfers. With one in five KGS beneficiaries being out of school before the bursaries were introduced, the initiative helps reduce barriers to education for vulnerable girls and contributes to long-term human capital development.
The experience in Zambia of boosting school enrollment under KGS provides useful lessons for governments facing the unprecedented challenge of re-enrolling millions of children when schools reopen. Adolescent girls are at particular risk of dropping out of school. A recent study estimated that 20 million secondary school-aged girls may never re-enroll in classes after the coronavirus crisis. Early marriage and pregnancy increase the likelihood of school dropout, and those from poor families are less likely to be able to continue to afford education without safety net support.
Four main recommendations emerged from a 2019 rapid assessment of KGS and the operational response. These lessons that are relevant for educators and policymakers who are dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
- Provide cash transfers. The assessment found that vulnerable girls are often unable to stay in school even when school fees are covered because of other associated expenses. In response, KGS is supplementing regular cash transfers received by beneficiaries’ households with annual education grants to help cover indirect schooling costs. Lifting financial barriers by providing cash transfers and/or waiving school and examination fees has proven effective in enabling girls and marginalized learners to attend school. These measures could be considered in the context of COVID-19.
- Engage the community through clear communication. While the cash transfer and bursary provided financial support to poor families, money alone wasn’t enough to keep girls in school. Many of the girls who did not return to school hadn’t received the admission letters or had misunderstood project benefits and conditions. Based on this finding, KGS developed an enhanced outreach campaign (radio spots, engagement of traditional leaders, school assemblies) to encourage girls’ re-enrollment. Clear communication and community engagement are key to enabling disadvantaged groups to return to school after COVID-19. Schools need to clearly communicate reopening schedules and disease prevention measures as well as address gender norms that prevent girls from returning to classes.
- Protect against gender-based violence (GBV). The assessment also confirmed that adolescent girls face increased risk of sexual violence and harassment, both in their communities and in schools. The safety of boarding facilities was found to be particularly challenging in Zambia, which has led KGS to improve the safety of boarding facilities for beneficiaries. While schools are closed, the program is also providing pathways for girls to report abuse and to be referred to survivor-response services through a gender-sensitive grievance and redress mechanism. As violence against girls and women increases during outbreaks, ensuring continued support and commitment to safe and inclusive learning environments is critical. Psychosocial and GBV support should not be overlooked, as resources are often redirected to help manage the public health crisis.
- Mitigate the risks and consequences of early marriage and pregnancy. Girls, parents, and teachers interviewed during the assessment further identified early marriage and pregnancy as common reasons preventing girls from going to school. As seen across the region, marriage is considered incompatible with schooling in Zambia. Pregnant girls, although technically allowed to re-enroll, also tend to stay away after giving birth. Recognizing these challenges, KGS is now developing a case management system to act as an early warning system against drop-out and provide tailored, comprehensive support to vulnerable girls. Learning from the Ebola epidemic, when teenage pregnancy increased significantly, governments should remove regressive policies that discriminate against girls and, instead, encourage married and pregnant girls to attend school when COVID-19 closures end.
The Zambia experience highlights the role of social protection interventions in boosting human capital investments by providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable households. Class and gender disparities are being exacerbated in the COVID-19 context, and policy-makers should be concerned about backsliding towards greater social and educational inequity. Urgent action is, therefore, needed to strengthen safety net systems that help keep girls in school.