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Swaziland: A teacher returns home to confront barriers to girls’ education

©UNICEF NYHQ/2005/Allyson Alert
Sibili Nsibande

Sibili Nsibande was already a leader in her community through her work as a teacher at St. Annes high school in the Malkerns Valley, Swaziland. Now, thanks to a one-year fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, United States, she’s returning home armed with training in areas such as teen sexuality and organizing school clubs. She is ready to tackle head on the challenges that children, girls especially, encounter in staying in school in this country that has the highest adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world.

“Girls do experience major problems in school,” says Ms. Nsibande, who has taken on the role of unofficial counsellor to girls in her high school, and thus shares their most intimate cares and concerns. Although there are few problems getting girls in school in Swaziland, in the education sector several issues impact girls only, or more severely hamper their ability to stay in school. Barriers dictated by poverty, the raging HIV/AIDS pandemic, gender insensitivity and lack of capacity in schools limit their enjoyment of high quality and gender-sensitive education in a safe environment.

Education costs

Drop-out rates at both primary and secondary levels are high. More than two thirds of families live in poverty, and many parents struggle to pay school fees and other costs that are often far beyond their means. The drought that the country has endured over the past four years has made families, most heavily dependent on agriculture, increasingly vulnerable. The fact that many breadwinners have sickened or died from AIDS, has meant that those left behind must scramble to meet their basic needs.

While children whose parents are alive may be able to negotiate payment of their school fees, according to Ms. Nsibande, orphans often leave classes for long periods because they cannot pay, and at times may “sneak back” into the classroom so they can continue learning.

In her view, the ‘hidden’ costs of schooling, such as school uniforms, also disproportionately affect girls. She says, “Girls seemingly have to pay more for uniforms because they have extras,” such as sports uniforms and tunics.

Lack of gender sensitivity

Social mores may lead to some of the barriers to education in Swaziland being overlooked. “Little issues that I thought were jokes back home, I realize that they are actually barriers,” she says, adding “being at UNICEF has made me realize how deeply these little jokes are cutting into the girls emotionally.”

Although there are more female teachers than males, there are more male headteachers. This absence of female role models in leadership positions impacts girls’ perceptions of their own abilities. Ms. Nsibande says “the education sector is the first formal sector that the girls are exposed to, and seeing the male all the time as the person in authority, they [the girls] always look up to him.”

Likewise, textbooks used in schools are not gender sensitive. They show illustrations of women and girls working as domestics or taking care of children, while men and boys are depicted playing sports. This gender imbalance also plays out when chores are being assigned in the school.

The scourge of HIV/AIDS

Education in Swaziland has been hard hit by the AIDS pandemic: The proportion of children completing primary and secondary education is declining and the situation is worsening as the full impact of the disease is felt. Though she declines to identify AIDS as the only reason for children being out school, Ms. Nsibande says “we are experiencing more absenteeism…[and] more latecoming, especially among the girls.”

And schools come up short in terms of dealing with topics such as HIV prevention and teen sexuality. “I believe teachers are not adequately equipped to deal with the situation at hand…they have not received any formal training,” she says. In addition, HIV prevention may be touched upon in biology, health education, or food and nutrition classes, yet all students may not be exposed to these subjects. Moreover, it is not an essential component of the curriculum, but “at the discretion of the teacher to say something.”

Ms. Nsibande declares her “personal vendetta” against AIDS, and believes that as awareness increases, additional anti-AIDS clubs are formed, and as more parents talk to their children, the rate of infection will subside. Girls are now asking questions and expressing a willingness to change their behaviour, all of which are positive signs.

Increasing vulnerability

Teen pregnancy is also a barrier to girls education. Swaziland has high rates of early marriage and childbearing, yet has a contraceptive prevalence of less than 30 per cent. According to Ms. Nsibande most deliveries in hospitals are among teenage girls. These girls are stigmatized and ridiculed, and are often expelled from school or forced to drop out. Such marginalization has also led to a wave of child dumping. Sexual abuse of female students by male teachers is also prevalent.

Ms. Nsibande remarks that to fulfil their needs and desires for cell phones, cash and fancy cars, “more and more girls will find themselves succumbing” to dependence on older men or ‘sugar daddies’. Increasing numbers of girls have become involved in commercial sex work, and girls between ages 10 and 15 are in demand as domestic workers, thus making it easier for them to be withdrawn from school.



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UNICEF Correspondent Allyson Alert interviews Sibili Nsibande.

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