By Ann Hellman
With the 15th-year review of the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women taking place at the ongoing Commission on the Status of Women in New York, South African teachers and education experts say they fear that a special focus on the advancement of girls is getting lost amidst the growing levels of poverty in the country.
Any notion that a gender-responsive curriculum, which ensures gender equality, should be taught is taking a back seat to other socio-economic problems plaguing one of the most unequal countries in the world.
Today, 15 years after the official demise of apartheid, government estimates it needs at least 35 billion U.S. dollars just to fit all schools with the basics – classrooms, water, toilets and electricity.
Even if this amount was spread over a ten year period – leaving many schools without facilities until 2020 – government still could “not afford it”, officials told parliament 18 months ago.
The situation has worsened since then. Five weeks ago, the government official in charge of delivering primary and secondary schooling Bobby Soobrayan, told South Africa’s parliament that the country now faces “a crisis in basic education”.
Teachers Thandi Mapalakanye and Andre Marais are right at the frontline in the post-apartheid education system.
Teaching at two of the thousands of derelict schools reserved for “non-whites” by the apartheid system, Marais says, “I can tell you with certainty, gender equity is not taught in poor schools”.
Marais teaches 15 year olds at the Rosendal High School in Delft, a typical Cape Town ghetto built on sand dunes about 28 kilometres from the affluent city centre.
The school hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons last year when it’s headmaster was accused in the local media of expelling pregnant school girls as soon as their pregnancies became visible â€“ and of not allowing them to return to school after their babies were born.
“I am teaching a class of 67 kids. The kids are sitting on the floor. This school needs so many more teachers but the education department refuses to give us even one more,” Marais told IPS.
“Gender is just not an issue to many teachers. There is no idea how to deal with teenage girls getting pregnant; there is absolutely no sensitivity. I can safely say it is the same throughout the whole of Delft,” said Marais.
Mapalakanye teaches 16 to 18 year old boys and girls at a historically Black high school near Johannesburg.
More than 1500 kilometres away from Delft, Mapalakanye says her P.T. Xulu Secondary School near Johannesburg shares the same problems as Rosendal High School.
She explains that in her school of 1200 pupils, there are between 90 and 110 pupils in every class.
“It is more difficult for girls but because of these other problems, I havenâ€™t even begun to consider the gender implications yet,” Mapalakanye told IPS.
University of Johannesburg Centre for Education Rights and Transformation senior researcher, Salim Vally, estimates that gender based violence in schools has become more severe since 2002 when a Lancet study revealed that 33 percent of South African rape survivors were girls who had been raped by members of the school community, other pupils, or school staff.
Vally told IPS that the government’s focus on the Millennium Development Goal on gender doesn’t help.
Goals number two and three call for gender parity in primary and secondary education by 2015.
“We have gender parity in schools; in fact there are more girls in secondary school than boys. But gender parity data masks other issues, like how we provide equal safe access to education for girls. It takes more than just an equitable ratio of girls to boys in education to address entrenched patterns of gender based discrimination and violence,” he said.
The large amounts of harassment girls are subjected to affects the quality of their education.
“The formal curricula is complete with exhortations against sexism. Compared to apartheid curricula itâ€™s a huge advance,” Vally says.
But he cautions that whether South Africa’s “gender-responsive curriculum” policies are implemented is highly doubtful and contested.
He adds that young women in South Africa’s shantytowns, or informal settlements, are not on the same footing as suburban girls. According to the latest Household Survey, 16 percent of South African children don’t have one or both parents. Girls from informal settlements or the rural areas, where the rate of unemployment is as high as 60 percent, are more likely to end up looking after younger brothers and sisters.
“There is great pressure on school-going girls because they are seen as primary caregivers,” Vally adds.
The class divide is starkly illustrated in an interview with a pupil of colour who attends a well-resourced school that, under apartheid, was reserved for whites only.
Salmah Peters (17) is in her final year at Hottenhots Holland High School in Somerset West, a suburb about 40 kilometres from Cape Town.
She seems oblivious to gender issues in general and says of her school experience that girls are encouraged by the teachers to study in formerly male disciplines like engineering.
“For the first two years of high school they separate girls and boys into different classes because they say we girls will achieve better than if the boys are there to distract us. But for the last three years we are back in the same classes” Peters says.
“There is no violence against girls here, although sometimes we fight each other about boys and little things,” she adds.
“Life for Black working class girls in South Africa is so much harder. We have to constantly remind people that, post-apartheid, racism, sexism and class divides still exist in society and in the education system,” Vally concludes.