UNICEF@75: Advancing girls’ education in Zambia in the 1990s

looking back on the Programme for the Advancement of Girls Education

Nkole Nkole
Learners at Batoka Primary School participate with their teacher Aness Ngandu in a literacy catch up lesson Choma, Zambia
UNICEF/UNI308021/Schermbrucker
08 August 2022

In the 1990s, the Government of Zambia and UNICEF launched a new initiative dedicated to advancing girls education in the country. As part of UNICEF’s 75th anniversary year, we look back on the Programme for the Advancement of Girls Education (PAGE).

“In my Grade 7 intake, I got the highest marks by a girl,” says Yvonne Mweemba. That programme really inspired me to great levels and made me see girls' education in a different light... What a man can do, I can also do; I don't limit myself."

The goal of PAGE was to deliver quality education for all children, especially girls, and reduce gender disparities in primary education enrolment, retention, completion, and achievement. PAGE also advocated for increasing the proportion of female teachers, headteachers and education managers, and received funding through UNICEF from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), as it was called at the time.

The pilot starts in urban areas of Lusaka, and Chipata in Eastern Province. In Lusaka, Bauleni Primary School was one of the programme’s flagship schools. Yvonne began her primary education there in 1994 at the age of eight. While in Grade 3, Yvonne recalls meeting a group of people who were under the PAGE programme.

“I think the first question I was asked by the representatives from PAGE was what I wanted to be when I grew up and they told us we could be anything we wanted. Back then, it was easy to believe that boys did better than girls in school, but PAGE emphasised that we were equal and that what a boy can do, a girl can do also.”

Yvonne

The programme resonated strongly with Yvonne, the only girl living with her extended family in her grandparents' home. As a young girl, Yvonne’s grandmother could not afford to pay her school fees and struggled to buy her a school uniform and other school requirements. The PAGE programme covered these expenses on their behalf.

"We were given school bags as well, and I remember the bags had a label saying 'Good student,'" Yvonne shares with a giggle. "For me, that was the first bag I used which was brand new because until that point, I had used school bags handed down to me by my older siblings. That was the first bag I ever opened for myself to use. That's how come I have not forgotten the name because I know exactly what it meant then."

The PAGE project was a source of motivation for Yvonne and her friends living in a community where the school dropout rate was high. They were part of school clubs under PAGE and attended weekly meetings as members where they were encouraged to be confident and not to be intimidated in class. Occasionally, they would get visits from prominent women leaders to encourage them to work hard in school in order to have successful careers.

"I remember there was only one boy that would beat me for the number one position, but that changed after PAGE - I started being first in class. This came from the constant reminder that what a boy can do, a girl can too,” Yvonne shares. In Grade 6, she became a school prefect and was made Head Girl in Grade 7. Today, Yvonne is a graduate of Business Administration from the University of Malawi and works as a businesswoman.

Although several decades have passed since the programme first launched at the school, teacher Ruth Mumba still remembers the impact it had in Bauleni. Ms Mumba has been a teacher at the school for 21 years and was supervised by the late Fidelis Mungawa, headteacher at Bauleni Primary School when the PAGE programme was launched there in 1995. She recalls that bicycles were donated under the programme and used by teachers to check up on girls sponsored by PAGE.

“Enrolment numbers went up, and there was a lot of enthusiasm, especially among the girls,” she shares. “They were free to be themselves and were free to talk to us as teachers, even if it was concerning personal matters. This was encouraged under the programme."

Mrs Mumba now teaches Grade 7 class at Bauleni Primary and has taught different generations during her time at the school.

One of her pupils is 12-year-old Tungile Zulu, who has been at Bauleni Primary School since Grade 3. Tungile’s mother, Cecilia Sakala, was once a student of Mrs Mumba’s while at Bauleni Primary and was a beneficiary and ambassador under the PAGE programme. Cecilia still lives in the township of Bauleni and is now raising her children there.

“My family moved to Bauleni when I was 10, in Grade 6, and that is when I was enrolled at Bauleni Primary School. I was part of the launch of the PAGE programme at the school and was chosen as an ambassador. My role was to teach other girls my age about the importance of girl child education,” she says.

When the programme was launched in Bauleni, the number of boys in school was notably higher than that of girls.

Cecilia was bought schoolbooks, a school bag and a school uniform under the programme, which motivated her and changed her attitude towards education. She would talk to girls both inside and outside Bauleni Primary about the benefits of education. She believes programmes like PAGE were instrumental in changing attitudes in Bauleni around girls’ education and should still be funded today.

"There are some people who still don't value girls' education. They prefer that their daughters get married so that they can charge dowry and profit from that. This just continues the cycle of poverty,” Cecilia explains.

From Bauleni Primary School, Cecilia moved to Petauke Boarding School in Grade 9, where she later completed her secondary school education. Today she is a musician with a fondness for traditional music and sings in a band called Chukazidule.

In 1996, at the age of 11, Cecilia flew to Zimbabwe as a PAGE ambassador. In Zimbabwe, she interacted with girls from Malawi and Uganda who were also ambassadors under the PAGE programme.

“I travelled to Zimbabwe with Fidelis Mungawa, who was the headmistress then. It was the first time I flew on a plane and we shared ideas and experiences with other PAGE ambassadors from Zimbabwe and Malawi. That experience boosted my confidence and helped me have the courage to speak to others without fear.”

Cecilia

The PAGE programme was developed as part of the Government of Zambia’s Girl Child Education Programme (1994-1995), which focused on policy development, gender-sensitive materials and research. Building on the success of the Girl Child Education Programme, PAGE integrated advocacy, gender sensitisation, social mobilisation and testing of specific interventions to improve girls' education.

“The biggest achievement of the programme was to shine a bright spotlight on girls’ education. There have been programmes here and there on girls’ education, but in a more coordinated manner and with a louder voice I think it was PAGE,” says Dr Bentry Nkhata, who is the current Dean of the School of Education at UNZA and was one of the contributors to a 1998 university report on the programme.

Dr Nkhata and his fellow team members found that PAGE was perceived as a positive force within schools and at the Ministry of Education.

“Advocacy efforts had achieved a great deal with respect to making communities, parents and teachers aware of the problems and importance of education for the girl child. In many schools, single-sex classes have given girls more confidence and this intervention is seen as helping girls achieve more academically,” their report reads.

According to Dr Nkhata, PAGE used a systematic approach, which began with a research plan to understand the issues on the ground. This research then fed into the programme's design.

One study looked at dynamics inside the classroom; another looked at the legal framework surrounding girls’ education. It then went into a pilot phase before finally being mainstreamed.

One aspect of the PAGE programme was the creation of single-sex classes, building on the argument that girls achieve better results when in same-sex schools.

"This was a middle line, not to go for single-sex schools as such but to introduce single-sex classes within the co-educational space," Dr Nkhata explains.

‘Familypac’ was another intervention; used to increase parental involvement. According to one report, it was well-received, but parents' illiteracy and poor attendance hampered its implementation.

The initiative invited parents to schools to encourage them to be more involved in their children's academic lives. The idea was for parents to have a relationship with the school so that they could better support their children and their studies.

While the purpose of PAGE was to advance girls’ education in Zambia, the bigger picture was the advancement of education for all children. PAGE wasn’t without its challenges. However, it became a reference point for gender sensitivity in schools on which similar programmes were founded.

Zambia now records close to equal numbers of boys and girls enrolling in primary school, though girls still drop out at a higher rate at secondary school.

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This article was part of a series looking back on UNICEF’s work in Zambia as part of the UNICEF75 anniversary commemorations.