Gender differences manifest themselves in South Africa in the altogether different experiences of boys and girls in schools.

A girl's position in the school

Many households are run by children as parents have passed away as a result of HIV (Aids)'. © Andrew Tshabangu. Julesburg, Northern Province

According to a survey, done by the Department of Education (DoE), in the Grade 12 Senior Certificate Examination and assessments, girls seem to be doing better at key competency tests. More girls participate in higher education. At higher education institutions, the female share of enrolment has increased over the years from 44.1% in 1993 to 51% in 1999 and to about 54% in 2001. Participation in mathematics, science and technology for female learners is also improving.

Even though there has been much reform, in rural areas social and cultural patterns, combined with the relatively poor quality of schooling, place girls and their education and development in a disadvantaged position. One major challenge is the unacceptable rate of violence and harassment against girls, who are often still excluded from mathematics and science, and from prestigious leadership positions such as school prefects. Girls and their education are also disproportionately affected by cultural and economic issues like domestic duties, transport, and school fees.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is working with partners such as the South African Girl Child Alliance and the Girls Education Movement (GEM) to advocate the development of a national policy and legislation on violence against women and children. At community level it cooperates with organisations like CRISP (Crime Reduction in the Schools Project) to facilitate community action in reducing violence, and to declare 200 schools as "Safe Schools" for boys and girls. In addition, a UNICEF-supported programme to train girls in critical life skills is underway in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Limpopo provinces.

Another issue is the decline in girls' school attendance. A survey was conducted by the DoE in 2003 on the issue of boys' versus girls' attendance at schools. The results were as follows: there were more girls enrolled in schools than boys, a continuing trend in South African schools, despite the fact that in the early grades, boys make up the majority of enrolment (51-52% in grades 1-4). In grade 5, boys constitute 50.5% of enrolment, but thereafter, girls outnumber boys and by grade 12 boys make up 45% enrolment. Gross enrolment since 1991 in primary schools has improved over the last decade, moving closer to 100 per cent. Despite this generally positive situation, however, the drop-out rate among girls is on the increase.

School drop-outs

Several reasons have been cited for the increase in drop-out rates among girls, namely; poverty, HIV-Aids, and in particular parents' inability to pay school fees. It has been established that 26 percent of girls in grade 12 in rural areas leave school because of marriage, HIV-AIDS, teen pregnancy and other family commitments.

Poverty and School fees: Many parents/guardians refuse to pay school fees sometimes because they care less about the education of girls than of boys, or they simply do not have the money. The DoE came up with strategies to deal with the problem by exempting some schools from receiving school fees from learners.

Poverty and HIV-Aids: The culture that forbids girls to speak about abuse at the hands of teachers and elders in rural areas has seen a tremendous growth in teen pregnancy and a resulting increase in drop-out rates. Many girls drop out of school before they reach grade 12. Other girls drop-out to head households in cases when the children have been orphaned by HIV-AIDS. In rural areas, girls in the poorest of the poor families use child grants - as a means of supporting extended families, hence the call to rethink the strategies of giving out money and vouchers.

Teenage pregnancy

Teenage pregnancy is a factor when looking at the school drop-out rates among girls. Many girls in South Africa give birth during their teenage years, girls who are neither economically nor emotionally ready to deal with parental responsibilities.

Social change: Teenage contraceptive use in South Africa is often constrained by attitudes toward sexual involvement before marriage or within a stable adult relationships. Social changes have led to an increase in marriage age in South Africa, which has been accompanied by a rise in premarital sexual activity and premarital pregnancy.

Urban problems: Many girls in urban areas have become victims of alcohol and drugs. They also live expensive lifestyles and in order to finance their habits, they end up being prostitutes, often falling pregnant and leaving school. In urban areas, even though many girls are more aware of HIV-AIDS than their rural counterparts, the scourge of the disease is spreading considerably. It is estimated that if drastic measures are not put into place the number can rise up to 35% by year 2010.

Rape: In many cases, young rape victims are left with unwanted pregnancies. As long as the rape statistics remain as high as they are and as long as the myths like, sleeping with a virgin will cure HIV-AIDS persist, the number of young rape victims will continue to increase.

Education: Education is seen as key in controlling the number of teenage pregnancies in South Africa. However, many controversial methods of education have been adopted. An example is the virginity testing in rural KwaZulu-Natal. These tests are aimed at encouraging rural girls to look after themselves properly. They are taught how to behave and to avoid indulging in activities such as sex, drugs etc. The Commission on Gender and Equality is strongly opposed to this form of testing, but people in support of it say it contributes to the education and upbringing of girls.

South Africa is cautious about population growth, with an estimated annual population growth rate of 2.2%. Unwanted teenage pregnancy and orphans are an issue. A draft White Paper for a Population Policy for South Africa cited the high incidence of unwanted teenage pregnancy as one of the country's major population concerns. The seeming failure to help young girls (both urban and rural, although to a larger degree rural) deal with their sexuality, leads to a high incidence of pregnancies, abortions, STDs, and HIV and AIDS, as well as high maternal and infant mortality. There is an urgent need for South African teenagers to have access to sexual education and confidential contraceptive services.

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