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Education through WhatsApp: Keeping girls learning and safe during lockdown in Zimbabwe

© Rumbie Marime/World Vision

“I want to be a magistrate, but I’m afraid. The girls who have been married won’t be able to go back to school. It could happen to me too.” At age 14, Coventry increasingly fears that she might be pressured into marriage after seeing two of her friends married during lockdown.

In Zimbabwe, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the closing down of all primary and secondary schools before the end of March 2020. Many remained closed for over six months, with some only reopening in November. In some communities, over two-thirds of girls reported to have dropped out in late 2020 when schools reopened due to early and unintended pregnancy or marriage.

World Vision, a partner of UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, is supporting girls’ education in the country through its UKAID funded Improving Gender Attitudes, Transition, and Education Outcomes (IGATE*) project.

When schools closed, IGATE provided teachers and a network of community volunteers with small amounts of phone credit and organised them into WhatsApp groups where they shared daily learning activities and materials.

“I became worried about the increase of early marriages within my community”, explained Eleanor Moyo, a community volunteer. “A quarter of the girls at the nearest secondary school and two girls of primary school age married.”

Moyo, who survived abuse as a young girl, dedicates her time to look after the girls in her community and encourage them to continue their schooling. “I supported two girls of primary school age who had married to return to school.” She proudly goes the extra mile to advocate against harmful social practices that are barriers to girls’ education.

The WhatsApp groups and other community volunteers like Moyo have helped keep girls safe from early marriage and other threats to their education. The groups have functioned as an alert system to help prevent the rising numbers of adolescent pregnancies and early marriage, and raised awareness of inclusion policies among teachers.

The learning groups on WhatsApp have also provided support to girls like Coventry. “When I go back to school, I can be stronger and work harder because I am in a better position than those who have not been attending the learning groups.”

Coventry quickly completes her household chores so she can attend the groups. She feels lucky that her parents want her to learn; some of her friends’ parents do not allow their daughters to join the learning groups because of their chores.

To help reduce dropouts due to early marriage or pregnancy, IGATE set up additional WhatsApp groups for religious and community leaders and head teachers to discuss issues such as adolescent pregnancy and gender-based violence.

“Recently, we planned a meeting with local stakeholders to encourage pregnant girls to go back to school, based on the recent Education Amendment Act”, Moyo remembered proudly.

 

Raising awareness on the new Education Amendment Act, which makes it illegal to exclude pregnant girls and young mothers from school and other guidance safeguarding girls’ right to education, was a critical step to promoting their continued education.

As schools begin reopening and lockdown restrictions ease, the use of WhatsApp to activate networks of grassroots champions for girls’ learning and safety has reinforced support structures. Some 6,000 girls were reached via alternative learning, including on WhatsApp or through community volunteers, as of September 2020. IGATE aims to benefit over 30,000 marginalised girls in Zimbabwe.

Through the work of Moyo and other community volunteers, the hope is that as many girls as possible will return to school and continue their education despite their experiences during the pandemic. Both the technology and support networks used during the lockdown are being used to ensure marginalised girls continue their education in 2021 and beyond.

At the peak of the pandemic, over 1.5 billion learners around the world have seen their education disrupted due to COVID-related school closures. Under UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, a Gender Flagship was established to safeguard progress made on gender equality and education and promote girls’ and women’s empowerment in and through education.

*Story contributed by Janelle Zwier-Marongedza, IGATE Program Director, World Vision Zimbabwe. IGATE is a consortium project led by World Vision in partnership with CARE international, Open University of UK, SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, Union for the Development of the Apostolic Church in Zimbabwe Africa and Emthonjeni Women’s forum.