Mbasa Satyi, argues that our focus in the fight for women’s liberation must be on the basic education of our Black girl children. Too often Black girl children bear the brunt of the ‘toxic mix’ that exists in our schools which ultimately articulate the triple challenge of the Black girl child: gender, class and race. While girl’s entering the schooling system is good, retention rates have also proven to be good but what is the quality of education received by Black girls. The ANC at its recent National Policy Conference made some good proposals but we must make sure that the Black girl child becomes the focus of basic education.

“Your knowledge, your education is your husband. Your husband will leave you but your knowledge and education can never leave you.” These are the words of one of Africa’s greatest womanists, the late Miriam Makeba.

What these words of Mme Makeba highlight is the indelible nature of education. Knowledge, in this sense, is truly power. While one is able to lose possessions and even endure poverty, education and possessing skills enables one to better one’s lot much more than a person who is uneducated and in poverty.

It is therefore opportune during this Woman’s Month to reflect on the situation that our girl children face within our education system, particularly at a basic education level. At the beginning of this Woman’s Month, the Minister of Women, Susan Shabangu, addressed a group of young girls at the Sci-Bono Science Centre in Johannesburg.

Among others, Minister Shabangu reminded these young girls that globally we were fast approaching the Fourth Industrial Revolution where nearly eighty percent of jobs would require qualifications in a STEM education; in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Globally, she went on to indicate, only ten percent of women show an interest in STEM subjects whilst today only seven percent of those who work in STEM related fields in South Africa are women. STEM therefore remains overwhelming male and this much change.

Yet many would agree that if the ‘toxic mix’, as the educationist Graeme Bloch terms it, exists then this concoction of challenges at our schools, more than anything, affects the girl learner most.

Issues of mother language, challenges with the curriculum, the structural poverty which Black families find themselves in as well as the poor conditions schools are located in, issues of the lack of schooling of Black parents and the poor healthcare that accompanies poverty. Dare we be reminded at this point of the free condoms made available by government but that poor Black girls, especially on our farms and rural areas, have to miss school because of lack of sanitary ware.

Substance abuse continues to dog our communities and our schools thus often contributing to a high level of crime and violence, at our schools. The recent horrific video of a school girl being assaulted by her male peer personifies the real triple challenge of our Black girls at schools. Challenges of gender oppression, class exploitation and these two invariably, in South Africa, being linked to race.

The measures of the Democratic Alliance MEC for Basic Education to allow for the sale of alcohol at schools therefore cannot be accepted because it is poor and Black schools who continue to suffer the brunt of alcohol abuse and who definitely will be the chief victims of the amendment of this policy.

Despite twenty-three years of freedom, there remains schools which do not have access to electricity and which have to use the bucket or pit latrine system while some depend on mobile tankers and communal standpipes for water. The majority of our Black schools remain without a library, without laboratory facilities or without computers. It is common for university lecturers to encounter first year university students, at historically disadvantaged institutions, who have never seen a computer before never mind worked on one.

We continue to struggle to ensure that our teachers arrive on time, teach for eight hours a day and ensure that they put in the necessary extra hours needed for a developmental state to emerge. The reality of course is that this toxic mix, which Bloch describes, is not found in former Model C or private schools; they are found in Black schools. It is Black children, African and Coloured in particular, who continue to bear the brunt of this toxic mix.

Even more so, our girl children have to survive these schools literally. A young girl making it to high school has probably had to endure far more psychological and emotional trauma than her young body can manage.

Children Count, a non-governmental organisation working with the Children’s Institute, keep track on the statistics of children and schooling in South Africa. Using Statistics South Africa’s General Household Survey 2002-2014, they indicate that ninety-eight percent of children of school going age in South Africa, between the ages of seven and seventeen, are attending some form of educational institution in 2014.

Yet what is useful is Children Count’s Gender Parity Index. The latest data they have available on this index is 2011. In that year, South Africa had an almost equal parity between the sexes, male and female, attending school. This equality in attendance between girls and boys was also visible in provinces such as the Eastern and Northern Cape; note two of the poorer provinces of our country.

Yet the index indicated that in provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape, the provinces with better educational infrastructure, more girls were attending school than boys. In the rest of the provinces, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo, girls were doing worse than boys in attending school. Unsurprisingly, Limpopo, being the worst. It would not be incorrect to draw a link between the overall development of the province and the attendance of girls at school.

Significantly it must be mentioned that Gauteng in particular paid attention to this practice of ensuring that more girls are retained in the schooling system than boys. Unlike the Western Cape, the positive situation in Gauteng is not historical and they have had to work on ensuring that more girls are kept within the system. These figures are a combination of the different phases of schooling and so therefore are not only based on children entering the system. For example, Gauteng has more boys entering the system but shows a retention rate better for girls, again despite Bloch’s toxic mix.

As Children Count continues to point out, girls enter our schooling system almost automatically. Parents do not discriminate or think twice about sending their daughters to school, as does happen in some countries and maybe some rural communities of our country. What poses a greater risk is our girls actually being at school. For at school they face the real potential of being assaulted, verbally, physically and sexually, and raped. Violence and poverty remain therefore the greatest threats to our girl children.

Basic Education is an apex priority for the ANC and this was reaffirmed at its recent National Policy Conference. In its report to the policy conference, the subcommittee on Education, highlighted some of the interventions made by the Department of Basic Education in order to ensure better functioning of schools, among these were addressing school infrastructure, provision of water, electricity and sanitation to schools, the national school nutritional programme and the provision of health and social services.

The proposal of boarding schools as a social ‘safety-net’ was proposed and already some provinces, such as KZN, have launched programmes to give learners free sanitary ware. Yet we cannot reduce fixing the challenges girls face at schools to supplying sanitary wear. We must ensure that, even in our policies, whether health or education, that Black girl children become our top priority and that they are placed at the focus of these policies.

As we celebrate woman’s month, we must remember that the future of women lies in the future of the girl child. In order for us to have liberated women tomorrow, we must liberate our girl children today. We must ensure that they can attend school in their mother tongue while being free from the shacklers of poverty and the fear of violence on their way to and from school. We must ensure that that the learning environment is one conducive to learning for our girl children.

Mme Miriam is right. The only way that we can encourage our girl children to be free, free from men, is to become educated. With educated girl children, we will have an educated South Africa.

Mbasa Satyi is a NEC member of the ANCYL