School is a public sphere and family is a private sphere

Image: Till Lauer

The 5th and final assumption of the sequential model to prevent HIV and early pregnancies among girls and young women is that “School is a public sphere and family is a private sphere – education and family life are two entirely separate spheres”.

Getting an education is not always about just your own economic freedom and future, it is often motivated by a need to secure a better life for your family. What is evidently unaccounted for with regards to this assumption that many interventions seem to go by, are the realities and needs of our families. For some girls and young women education and family cannot be separate – their lives invariably intertwine with their ability to get an education that may or may not secure their future. The monograph makes reference to practices such as Ukuthwala (a coercive arranged marriage) for example, a transaction often veiled as tradition when it is essentially selling a girl child to an older man as a means to escape poverty. Where is the choice to an education ever going to materialise for that girl? In such instances there is often no choice in going to school and girls fall into further victimisation.

Interventions based on this assumption miss the realities of a lot of young women and girls. I can appreciate being able to work while in varsity but it’s frankly a gruelling experience if undertaken without an adequate financial support structure. The ideal is that you work while studying to supplement financial support that you already receive from your parents or in the form of a bursary or some kind of funding, while also benefitting from gaining work experience that will give you a competitive edge once you’re on the job market. The reality is that you have to work in order to afford transport, textbooks, groceries and other essentials at home, possibly over and above your tuition fees and in some instances, accommodation. Girls and young women who find themselves in this position tend to opt for engaging in transactional sexual relationships as part of their strategies to hustle so that they can support themselves and their families – parents, single parents and/or siblings – back home to avoid becoming nothing more than a statistic: a dropout; this as they manoeuvre being labelled gold diggers, slay queens, taxi queens, and blessees seeking luxuries they can’t afford. I know I would never want to find myself in a situation where I would have to sacrifice so much of myself in order to survive; it’s a fear shared by many women and so to assume that girls and young women do this simply because they can, and that they all have the choice is distasteful, lazy and lacks analysis of real situations; a biased judgement of the other, a projection of one’s value system on the other and borders on cruelty.

Also unaccounted for in interventions is the fact that a diploma or an undergraduate degree is sometimes not enough to guarantee a secure job position. Further study may be required but in some families your first graduation was their only goal and any talk of further expenditure to study is like a slap in their faces when they are now geared up to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Young women under these circumstances are forced to take on just about any job, even totally out of their field of study, in order to fulfil these expectations and often to pay for their younger siblings to get an education too. So the *little* education they have, even as graduates, does little to change their reality and they are unable to enjoy “modern luxuries” per the assumptions of the sequential model. And things will be worse with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy. Add marriage to the mix and this sequencing journey could probably lead to the risk of further victimisation in the form of abuse and violence for being deemed lesser, since men will often take advantage of women that they don’t perceive to be independent and are intimidated by more “well educated” women. Here, there’s a likelihood of falling pregnant before they even get an opportunity to return to school; there’s also the possibility of contracting HIV from an unfaithful husband since gendered socialisation effectively allows for men in general to have multiple sexual partners with little backlash, if any.

What of girls that fall pregnant while in school? In agreement with the monograph, the education system does fail to plan for parenting students making it nearly impossible for them to finish school. You need not look farther than the fact that boys are never faced with the imposition of quitting school because they are parents to know that schooling systems are very biased and tailored with boys in favour.  There is no assumption that boys may fail because there is no expectation that they will stay home with a baby, miss school for clinic visits or won’t complete homework or study for an exam because they were up with a sickly baby. A girl cannot separate her reality from her education and may be forced to drop out; an excruciating burden that may even lead to depression and suicide for some.

Sequencing does not account for all realities, and most interventions based on the assumptions of the sequencing model only perpetuate the stigmatisation of girls and young women that have little to no choice in how their lives unfold, and have to grapple with social and structural violence, and racial and gender inequalities. If anything, when sequencing proves impossible, this builds pressure to be something that we’re not. And when we can’t live up to that pressure we lie about who we are, and not knowing and accepting who we are makes us even more vulnerable. Our girls and young women deserve better and accommodative education policies and practices.

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