March 1, 2016
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – Fostina Mwambilwa never envisioned herself back in class after 17 years of being out of school.
As a child, Mwambilwa dreamed of becoming a secretary, but she dropped out of school at age 13 to take a job as a maid after her father died.
But when Mwambilwa got a new job nine years ago as a nanny, she was required to speak to the children in English and help them with their homework.
“I couldn’t speak English and my boss’s children would laugh at me,” Mwambilwa says. “So my boss encouraged me to go back to school and since I needed the job, I started evening classes.”
That education more than paid off. When Mwambilwa’s boss saw her dedication, she helped her get a job as an orderly at the Commission for Investigations while she continued her schooling. Now, at 39 years old, she’s completing her final year of secondary school.
Mwambilwa is one of many Zambian women who are returning to primary or secondary school as adults. Like others in her position, she works during the day and attends literacy classes at night.
Only about 13 percent of women aged 15 to 49 completed secondary school or higher, according to the Zambia Demographic and Health Survey of 2013- 2014.
Experts say more women are returning to school now, but it’s hard to know exactly how many are doing so because data isn’t compiled from all the involved organizations.
Zambia’s National Gender Policy, which demands equal participation of women and men at all levels of national development, has led to women’s return to school, says Hillary Chipango spokesman of the Ministry of General Education.That policy, originally adopted in 2000, sought to improve the economic position of women, among other things.
Chipango says the Ministry of General Education is reviewing the national education and skills training policy to make sure there are female staff members at every training institution to act as role models for girls and women. The policy will also ensure that all management positions in the education and skills training system are shared between deserving men and women, he says.
Women who value education are likely to support their own daughters’ education, says Costern Kanchele the director of administration at the Forum for African Women Educationalists of Zambia.
That organization runs a program called Back-to-Back, which motivates women to learn how to read and write. In the program, girls are encouraged to teach their mothers how to read and write while mothers are supposed to pass on skills such as cooking, baking, farming and knitting to the girls.
For working women who struggle to make ends meet, literacy is life-changing.
Falesi Banda, 40, a vegetable vendor at Mtendere Market, is a student at Mtendere Basic School. Before she knew how to read and write, she says she lost money because she struggled to price her products and it was difficult to apply for loans.
Banda says her original goal was to learn how to read and write. Now, she wants to become a teacher or a nurse.
“Upon starting school I saw how women who were working as domestic workers went to tertiary schools and today are teaching in some of the schools, some are nurses,” Banda says.“Then I realized it was not too late for me to get back to school and have a white collar job as well.”
Still, the road to literacy is difficult for many women. Mwambilwa says the government should offer financial assistance to women in adult literacy classes.
“I have seen a lot of women struggling to pay their school fees, some of them even stop because they have to prioritise their children’s education,” she says.“The sad reality is that most of us women who are trying to get an education are in low-income jobs. If the government can provide bursaries for women in night schools, many would complete their education.”
Mwambilwa hopes she won’t be counted among that group for much longer. Once she graduates from secondary school, she hopes to get a promotion.
Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja.
Correction: The number of women who have completed secondary school or higher was incorrect in the original version of this story. This story has been updated to include the correct number. Global Press Journal regrets this error.