Author: Mamoletsane Khati, December 3 2015 - Education is a fundamental human right that is provided for and supported in various international and regional human rights conventions and treaties that most of our southern African countries have ratified.

Empowerment through education ensures participation of citizens in development efforts and in political and economic decision making. However, the right to education is often affected by a number of political, economic and social factors, such as the weak infrastructure, limited resource provision for the delivery of, or access to education as well as cultural or traditional practices that are gender insensitive when it comes to this right.

As we commemorate the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence from 25 November, it is important to look at how access to education can be used as a tool for ending gender based violence. The theme for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign in 2015 is: "From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All". This theme recognizes the dire situation for millions of girls and boys, and young women and men, whose universal human right to education is trampled upon daily or cut short due to violence, lack of resources, and discrimination.

In southern Africa, infringements on access to education are more visible to girls and young women, rendering them vulnerable to early or forced marriage that can cut short their education; and expose them to the threat of different forms of sexual violence and abuse within education settings. Education opens up economic potential at a personal level not only through higher employment opportunities and income but also by enhancing skills and improving social status.  Women who went to school usually manage to increase the household income, improving the community’s development and livelihoods. 

Increasing girls' and young women’s access to education improves their sexual and reproductive health outcomes. When girls attend school, they have increased chances of accessing information and being sensitized on sexual and reproductive health.  This reduces their risk of being married early or becoming pregnant. It is also more likely that they will have healthier pregnancies and birth outcomes in the future.

The household level of poverty is one of the major factors undermining girls’ right to education. For example, when families cannot afford to educate all their children, it is often their daughters who have to stay at home until they get married, thereby exposing them to early and forced marriages.  Poverty sometimes forces families to marry off their daughters as a way of improving their economic status. 

Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) facilitates debates and discussions that identify the key sociocultural and socioeconomic barriers to access to education particularly for girls and young women. Child marriage is one of the sociocultural barriers to education, which traps girls and women in a cycle of poverty. Girls who get married early are denied the opportunities to complete their education, thereby reducing their ability to earn income and lift themselves out of poverty. These girls are then exposed to lack of employment and development opportunities, making them dependent on their spouses and families.  This dependence leads to the psychological abuse, economic abuse as well as physical violence at the hands of their older spouses.  Due to the inability to assert themselves, child brides are unable to negotiate for safer sex leading to vulnerability to STI and HIV infections as well as child bearing complications.

Sometimes schools are often not equipped to guarantee the safe and productive learning environment for adolescent girls and young women needed to achieve their full potential. Some girls experience sexual coercion at the hands of the teachers leading to dropping out of school. This further leads to disruption of their opportunity on education which then jeopardizes their future leaving their male counterparts at an advantage of educational attainment.

Addressing the barriers to access to education such as lack of access to quality, gender discrimination and gender based violence ensures support for women and girls. Without addressing these challenges, women will remain discriminated and vulnerable to GBV and as such their empowerment will always remain a pipe dream. 

Mamoletsane Khati is PSAf Regional Manager for Health and Development for feedback, email: