Leading with Legacy: Championing Girls’ Access

By Shemanne Davis

On Wednesday 9 August, South Africans will commemorate the historic 1956 Women’s March. The march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria was not just a protest; it proved to be a powerful challenge to racial and gender-based discrimination laws imposed on black South Africans and women. Thanks to the courageous protests 67 years ago, girls’ education has undergone a transformative shift. By drawing attention to gender-based inequalities and pushing for policy changes, the march ensured equal access to quality education for all. Beyond education, the protests catalysed the introduction of the Domestic Violence Act, which offers emergency protection orders. They spurred increased governmental funding for shelters assisting survivors of gender-based violence, elevated the presence of women in political and leadership capacities, and amplified the involvement of men in championing gender equality. The ripple effects of the march are personally felt within our own team.

Our learning technologist,  Hashil Patel, reflects on the role his grandmother, Yashvanti Narsing, played in the protests.  Not only did she include other family members, but her advocacy led to molding a socially conscious daughter, Hashil’s mother, who raised him and his siblings to be community activists. Today, this legacy of activism is evident in Hashil’s dedication to harnessing ed-tech for enhancing teacher development.

South Africans have worked hard towards parity in girls’ education. As of 2018 the primary school enrollment rate for boys was 89.7% ; for girls, it was 90.9%. However, equality in numbers does not mean equality in educational outcomes.  Almost 40% of black South African women are currently unemployed and not enrolled in any formal training, compared to 26% of black males in the country. For the country’s most underprivileged, 20% of teenage girls have become mothers, leading many to abandon schooling due to scant social and economic support. Alarmingly, many girls continue to face gender-based violence at disproportionate rates, enduring this trauma both at home and in school. 

The situation seems to be even more dire across the continent. Education is still not freely available to everyone, and in many parts of our continent, girls are the first to be excluded from it. 9 million girls between the ages of about 6 and 11 will never go to school at all, compared to 6 million boys. This disparity starts early: 23% of girls are out of primary school compared to 19% of boys. By the time they become teens, the exclusion rate for girls is 36% compared to 32% for boys. Girls are also influenced  by teachers’ attitudes and the varied expectations set for boys and girls. Teachers’ and school leaders’ skills in gender-affirming pedagogy remain limited, while the scarcity of female role models often leads to many girls feeling a sense of vulnerability and hesitating to to voice their opinions in class or delve into STEM-based activities. Additionally, the explosion of teenage pregnancies exacerbated by school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to compound this gender gap for a whole generation.

Research indicates that improvement in girls’ education requires a comprehensive approach that provides safe and inclusive learning environments, training educators in gender-inclusive teaching and learning methods, adopting an inclusive curriculum, increasing female leadership and representation in subject areas where women are historically underrepresented. It is also important to provide proactive mentorship, life skills, and soft skills development for girls and young women. 

This is why our pre-service and in-service programmes are focused on inclusive and gender-affirming teaching and learning practices. Two of the core competencies of our Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in Foundation Phase Teaching are Cultural Context and Inclusivity and Instructional AcumenCultural Context and Inclusivity involves recognising, appreciating and capitalizing on equity and diversity to enrich the overall learning experience by fostering a culturally inclusive learning environment that encourages all individuals – regardless of  gender. Instructional Acumen focuses on using effective and research-based teaching strategies to foster learner achievement in lesson planning, assessment, and facilitation. Student-teachers develop these competencies in their Classroom Management, Teaching Methods, Applied Child Psychology, Teaching Environment, Mathematics, Life Skills, Home Languages and Action Research modules. On our in-service teacher and school leader training app, Upskill, we have a dedicated programme of study focused on gender equity, these modules center on both teacher and school leader development. Some helpful modules include: Creating STEAM Opportunities for Girls, Investing Parents in Gender Equity, Facilitating Equitable Leadership Roles Along Gender Lines, and Building Schoolwide Culture of Gender Inclusivity

In addition to ensuring our curriculum directly supports educators in creating gender-inclusive learning environments and holding ourselves accountable to our organization’s value of inclusion, we have intentionally recruited and developed institutional leaders who are dedicated to gender-equity and who represent female leadership at the highest rungs of the institution. Our founding South African campus dean, Annie Ndlovu is a champion of girls’ rights and rural education. 100% of our foundation phase lecturers, 90% of our curriculum designers, 67% of our executive team and 50% of our board members identify as women. This representation matters because it amplifies diverse voices, ensures that women’s perspectives and experiences are integrated into decision-making processes, and challenges stereotypes leading to more inclusive and effective policies and initiatives.

We acknowledge we have a long way to go to ensure every girl on the African continent has access to a high-quality education, we ask for your support in this effort. Consider sponsoring a PGCE distance or contact student (email tom@instill.education), if you are a teacher, school leader, or principal-manager, complete gender-equity modules on Upskill (now available on the Google Play store), or encourage people interested in a career in teaching to enroll in the PGCE Foundation Phase program in 2024.