“Chores and a bit of netball. There’s nothing else to do here.”
That’s how 17-year-old Melissa describes life in her small village in rural Zimbabwe.
“When I wake up, I sweep the yard and do the dishes. Then I water the garden... Then I might speak to my friends for a little while.”
Forced to drop out of school two years ago due to the high cost of tuition and school fees, Melissa spends much of her time at home dreaming of a better life. She is envious when she sees other girls and boys passing her house on their way to school.
“I wish I could still go too,” she says. “I regret leaving and just sitting at home.”
Girls like Melissa run the risk of becoming invisible to governments and policy makers because little is done to make sure official records are gathered about them.
A new report that I helped produce for child rights organisation Plan International – Counting the Invisible – warns that the abuse and inequality faced by millions of girls will not end until there are better statistics on the realities of their lives.
For example, although we are good at counting how many girls start school, we don’t have any data on why they leave school – whether they were forced into marriage, whether they became pregnant, or were sexually assaulted at school.
In Melissa’s case, after her mother died two years ago, she went to live with an uncle, aunt and seven cousins. At US$105 per term, the cost of education was too much for her extended family to bear so she was forced to drop out.
The danger of being idle
When I was 15, I probably would have liked nothing better than to stay at home with nothing to do. But for many of the girls in rural Zimbabwe that we have spoken to, being ‘idle’ is a big concern.
In Counting the Invisible, we interviewed 120 girls in Zimbabwe aged between 15 and 19 and found that most were afraid of being idle. They told us staying at home with no education or work opportunities and nothing to occupy their time in a meaningful way made them vulnerable to early marriage and early pregnancy.
They reported feeling pressure from families and guardians to marry in order to relieve the financial burden of the household. Some turn to transactional sex to survive.
Of the girls we interviewed, 81% said they had to drop out of school at one point or another, either temporarily or permanently. The overwhelming majority said the reason behind this was economic, whilst others cited early pregnancy and early marriage as barriers to finishing their education.
Girls who drop out of school and marry often disappear from official records, according to Plan International Zimbabwe’s Country Director Lennart Reinius. When they do not figure in official statistics, service providers are less inclined to act to support them.
Girls are made even more invisible because of poverty, rural isolation and a lack of economic opportunity. It’s a tough cycle to break.
Hope for the future
Siphethangani is an example of what can happen when the cycle is broken. The 18-year-old is supported by Plan International Zimbabwe to go to school. The organization contributes half of her school fees each term. She and her mother raise the rest, through cleaning for neighbors and the school or relying on a distant family member in nearby Bulawayo.
It still isn’t easy, but having some support has allowed Siphethangani to concentrate on finishing her education. She recently gained 4 As and 3 Bs in her secondary school exams. She is now continuing her studies and is determined to attend university.
“There are many challenges that I face to get an education,” she says. “But with the determination I have, I will look after myself. I will make it.”
The release of Counting the Invisible comes one year after world leaders agreed on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which present a roadmap to end poverty and hunger, fight gender inequality and conquer climate change by 2030.
The report makes a strong case that the goals cannot be reached without better data on girls and women. It calls for deeper investment in statistical collection and analysis as well as more research, such as that undertaken by Plan International, to meaningfully capture the barriers, and opportunities, faced by girls like Melissa and Siphethangani.
Siphethangani has clear advice for other girls: “I would encourage girls to learn, to finish their education and not get carried away by what’s happening in their environment. We need to stay focused.”
Counting the Invisible launched on 3 October and is available for download at: https://plan-international.org/InvisibleGirls