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OPINION September 18, 2018

What will we do about the 3,000 girls that left school because of pregnancy? And what about the other 480,000 adolescent girls out of school?

Last week, the MINEDH announced that 3,000 girls dropped out of school in 2017 due to pregnancy (O Pais, September 4,2018). What’s worse, the government confirmed that this trend has been increasing, along with the number of adolescent girls out of school, which, according to UNESCO, has increased by more than 100,000, from 360,000 to more than 480,000, between 2008 and 2015. Nothing short of a properly financed plan of action – with assigned accountability – will suffice to protect and keep girls in school. Here’s the good news: success on this issue, which is very possible, will reduce poverty in Mozambique more than any other public investment.

What we do know about the state of girls in schools is alarming, if dated: 75 percent of girls interviewed by the MINEDH in 2008 reported that schools are unsafe, with sexual abuse happening in plain sight, with few repercussions for the perpetrators, whether teacher or student. Unfortunately, there is little reason to think that things have improved in the ten years since the survey was conducted. Indeed, if more girls are leaving school due to becoming pregnant, things might even be worse.

Is there cause for optimism for the next ten years? At the level of official national policy, the Despacho 39/GM/2003 does little more than blame victims, relegating girls to night school or dropping out altogether. Rescinding it would go a long way in sending a signal to the Mozambican people that we all must be held to account for the fate of these girls. At the level of national strategy, the Ministry of Education will be conducting a midterm review of its gender strategy which, for various reasons, sits largely unfunded and unimplemented. Undertaking the review is a brave step, and we hope that this exercise results in concrete actions, sharply focused on better results for girls. Last week’s article notes that the Ministry will appoint one girl per school session, to work with (adult) school focal points. This might help make a difference, but it is insufficient compared to what is needed to turn things around.

What policies and actions should be introduced? For starters, we need to send a signal of zero tolerance for teachers and students that are perpetrating sexual abuse in schools. This means prosecutions and convictions by the judicial system. We’ve seen some, but not nearly enough. Second, we need safe transport systems to get girls to and from school. This is not easy to organise nor finance, but it is an investment that will pay for itself many times over in Mozambique, as has been seen in other countries. Third, we need other support to girls and their families to better incentivise their attendance, through cash transfers, vouchers, scholarships, or other such programs. Indeed, these interventions have already proven to not only increase attendance in Mozambique, but even learning. More girls need access to such opportunities.

The lack of sufficient action on this issue is even more concerning since we know that keeping girls in school – and making sure they learn – is likely the single greatest investment Mozambique can make to reduce poverty. Schools must be and can be as safe a place as any for girls. Actions that will make a difference are well known. With the design of Mozambique’s new education strategy forthcoming, there will be more available funding. Regardless, some of these actions (like information to parents) cost very little, and yield great results. With stronger leadership from Mozambicans, whether in government, civil society, or communities, an entire generation of girls can see their fortunes turned around. And what’s to be gained? Nothing less than the future prospects of the entire country.

First appeared in Club of Mozambique