The World Economic Forum (WEF) is taking place in Davos, Switzerland, and the issues being discussed include education, gender and work. A world away, the work of PhD Fellow Brenda Yamba considers child carers and high school attendance in Southern Africa — particularly how they manage, despite the great adversities they face.
With kids, mainly girls, dropping out of school to care for ill or old family members, we lose talent and fail to educate these children. How big is the problem of school dropouts, and what are the consequences?
The focus of my thesis is on female child carers, that is, children who have taken up adult responsibilities and are the primary caregivers in the home. I targeted those that have stayed in secondary school despite the adversities, and examined perceptions of stakeholders on why and how they continued to attend school. Looking at this from a resiliency perspective told a very different story than simply focusing on reasons for dropping out. I focused on these children because I wanted to add a voice about this ‘hidden’ population – because very little has been written about them. In addition, most research on child carers has focused on the Global North; however, a few studies are now emerging from sub-Saharan Africa.
Although there has been some progress made on school enrolment, according to UNESCO and UNICEF, the global figures still remain high with 58 million children not attending primary school, and 63 million children not in lower secondary school.
My study was based in Lesotho where policy documents do acknowledge that children who play the adult role of caregiving are vulnerable and at risk of dropping out of school. I therefore decided to explore this phenomenon further in a country where the secondary net attendance is at 33% and, according to the latest Demographic Health Survey of 2014, only 19% of women have completed secondary school. The consequences of dropping out of school not only affect the individual, but also impact the socio-economic development of the country. Studies have also shown that educating girls will reduce maternal and child mortality, and improve other health indicators.
Although your study did not focus specifically on women, your findings show that girls take the role of child carer more often than boys. If we fail to keep girls in school already at primary level and secondary level, gender gaps are difficult to solve. You spoke with these girls. How do they see their future, and do they realise what situation they are in?
I spoke to a special group of girls: the ones that had beaten the odds and were able to stay in school despite taking up the responsibilities of being the primary caregivers in their families. I have never seen such motivated and driven children. Education to them was a springboard to a better life, one that is different from what they were experiencing. What was unique about their ambitions was the aspiration to provide better care for their families, and for those whose mothers had migrated to South Africa to bring them back so that they could live a normal family life.
You studied the case of Lesotho, but the problem is known to exist in large areas of sub-Saharan Africa, and likely to exist also in other developing regions. If you were in Davos now, what actions would you advise world leaders to take to solve this problem?
Follow through on Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”! Also, stick to the Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action, that commits to providing 12 years of free, publicly funded, equitable schooling. While in the past the focus has been on understanding factors that make children drop out of school, there is also a need to also learn what keeps those that have not dropped out, in school. Doing so would help focus resources and support on enhancing the protective and mitigating factors to keep more children in school.
I would also bring up the issue of quality of learning. My study showed that although children were attending school, they reported going through psychological stress brought about by worrying about the challenges they were facing as caregivers, and this was said to be affecting the quality of learning. What this shows is that tracking school attendance alone is not enough; governments also need to ensure that children are emotionally ready to learn.
My work also highlighted the role that teachers played by providing psychosocial care, and how they also sponsored some children using their own resources. In other words, teachers took up the role of substitute families or parents. Governments need to recognise this and tailor both pre-service and in-service teacher training to include specialised counselling for at-risk children.
Your love and enthusiasm for education is not only shown in your choice of topic, but also by the mere fact that you are enrolled in a PhD programme, alongside being employed by USAID. Pursuing a PhD programme means you are sacrificing a lot of your leisure time to study. You are now about to submit a final manuscript for review to an assessment committee. How much of your time have you invested in the PhD programme, and how you have remained committed all these years?
One thing I have learned over the four years I have been working on my PhD: absolute sacrifice, commitment and discipline are paramount. I had a routine that I tried to stick to, and this required me to change my sleeping patterns and to socialise less. Holidays were planned so that I would be able to work on my book. The ultimate sacrifice was when I decided to ‘cancel’ Christmas holiday and stayed home to finish writing.
My motivation to stay committed was when I learned that I was among the lucky few that were selected to pursue this programme. I did not take this for granted and knew that I needed to see it through. I was fortunate because my close friend, Mutinta Hambayi, was in the same cohort as I, so from year one, we made a pact that failure was not an option.
I was also motivated by Katrin Kriz and Louis Volante, who are the best supervisors one could wish for. They went above and beyond the call of duty, and kept me focused on my goal. A Skype call with one of them was all I needed to get back to my writing when things seemed bleak. Finally, I had a big cheerleading squad comprising family and friends. One of my uncles, who is over 80 years old, told me he had decided to stay alive to see me graduate. No pressure there!
Flickr / A.Diener
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.