Zambian Girls are Riding to School Following an Indian Model

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Zambian scheme for school girls

The adage “teach a woman, and you teach a nation” captures the significance of women’s education for any society. More so for certain developing nations still struggling to bridge the gender gap in education. Factors related to cost of education, travel distance, safety concerns, lack of agency, and ingrained cultural barriers often prevent women from reaching their education goals. Education has a high impact on women’s well-being as well as the growth and development of the nation. Therefore, most developing countries need to address these gender-specific barriers to advance the goal of an inclusive society. Zambia is a large, landlocked, resource-rich nation with a sparsely populated area in the middle of Southern Africa. It shares its border with eight countries: Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Its strategic location allows a larger regional market for goods and services. Zambia is also one of the world’s youngest countries by median age and is currently undergoing a significant demographic shift. Zambia’s population is largely urban. With a rapid growth rate of 2.7% per year, which reflects the country’s relatively high fertility rate, its population is projected to be around 19.6 million in 2021. As a matter of fact, as the population is expected to double in the next 25 years, it will add a lot of pressure with regard to the demand for jobs, health care, and other social services.

Additionally, poverty rates in rural Zambia continue to be unrelentingly high. While 78 percent of rural people in Zambia live in poverty, adolescent girls and women are disproportionately affected, especially concerning their educational opportunities. Despite nearly complete primary education coverage in the nation, only about 40 per cent of students of school age were enrolled in secondary education. And only a tiny portion of it is women. It’s believed that two out of every five girls in Zambia get married when they’re still young, which limits their access to education and puts their health at risk through early pregnancy. 

School girls in Zambia

Based on this knowledge, the Zambian government made it a priority to help more girls and women reach their potential through education. And to transform girls’ education, Zambian authorities took inspiration from the “Mukhymantri Balika Cycle Yojana” or CM bicycle scheme launched in Bihar, India. As per the World Bank data, the most critical determinant of primary school enrolment is the proximity of a school. Indeed, evidence shows that the farther children are from school, the less likely they are to attend. And this is precisely the challenge the scheme has addressed. 

Zambia tried to learn from the scheme of Bihar and, around May 2022, started implementing a similar model. As per the scheme, every participating schoolgirl would receive money to buy a bicycle to commute to school after reaching a particular grade. The major objective of this programme is to stop any girl child from dropping out of school because the school is too far from their home. As per the guidelines, each candidate will be given some cash to purchase a bicycle. To ensure the money has been utilised, the candidates must submit the purchase receipt at the school office.

Bicycles for school girls in Zambia. Courtesy https://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/

Within one year of introducing the scheme, Zambia managed to reduce girls’ absenteeism by 27 per cent. The average travel time to schools and late school arrivals decreased by 35 and 66 per cent, respectively. Additionally, as per a survey, the bicycle programme improved girls’ test results and gave them a sense of control over their life. Now that they have a more positive self-image, they are aiming higher. Finally, the girls also expressed their desire to wait until a suitable age before getting married and having children. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, girls have a challenging time travelling the distance to school. The fundamental issue facing girls— the countless miles of unpaved roads between their homes and schools— is not resolved by lowering tuition and offering conditional cash transfers to families who enrol their daughters in school. According to a World Bank study, more than one-fourth of primary school students live more than two kilometres away from the closest school, and secondary schools are frequently hours away for students living in rural areas. 

Within one year of introducing the scheme, Zambia managed to reduce girls' absenteeism by 27 per cent. The average travel time to schools and late school arrivals decreased by 35 and 66 per cent, respectively. Additionally, as per a survey, the bicycle programme improved girls' test results and gave them a sense of control over their life. Now that they have a more positive self-image, they are aiming higher.

The success of the scheme can be attributed to the fact that it successfully addressed the fundamental problems that many adolescent girls in rural Zambia confront, including the dangers associated with going to school by walking, the long walking distances to the schools, and ingrained cultural inhibitions that discourage walking to school. The Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted by UN Member States in 2015, set a 2030 deadline for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. As gender equality and equitable quality education are interconnected, it is not possible to achieve one without the other. Thus, without a strong commitment to girls’ education, gender equality will remain an unrealised goal. The time is apt to act and invest in women and girls. 

It is expected that many developing countries would adopt similar models and work towards attaining an inclusive society. When in Afghanistan, poisoning attacks, including suspected gas attacks at girls’ schools is, becoming commonplace or in Iran, poisoning incidents at girls’ schools are estimated to have affected almost 13,000, mostly female,  it is heartening to learn that replicating the Indian model, the transformation in girls’ education is taking place in Zambia. And now, in addition to the UN endorsement of the concept, six more African countries have also started implementing similar projects. Girls are powerful agents of socioeconomic change. Hopefully, India and African countries can lead together to create a gender-just world. 

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