Monday, March 21, 2011

another form of disempowerment

[this was first published in the Daily Dispatch on March 19 2011 with the title "Pregnant girls have faces, names and aspirations"]

MUCH to my surprise, I have become a Facebook and an Internet fanatic, I thrive on instant messaging, occasionally I use Mxit with my sister and I have a blog which all means I have access to the modern world through words, sharing and understanding my experiences through reading and writing.
However, I have a friend I cannot send an SMS to, she’s not on Facebook or Mxit let alone reading my blog. Not because she’s not keen on social networks or technology, but because she can’t read and write.

I met “Zandile” when she was in Grade 9 and she told me she couldn’t read and write.
She had a baby the following year when she was 18.
She considered an abortion so she could carry on with school, but she changed her mind. At age 19, registered at the time as a Grade 10 pupil, she dropped out of school at the insistence of her grandmother because “she was bringing shame to the family”. “Zandile” now lives with her unemployed boyfriend and her threeyear-old daughter whom she supports through a social grant and by doing odd pieces of domestic work. She declined going to adult classes to improve her literacy, saying the classes were inconvenient and boring.

I also know “Xoliswa”, who is 18 and currently in Grade 7.
She dropped out of school upon discovering she was pregnant and a year later she had a baby – she was then 16. She comes from a poor family where her mother is an alcoholic and they survive on the social grant she receives to support her siblings and baby. Xoliswa decided to go back to school in spite of the five-year gap that she has to endure and because she has a child to consider – she hopes to study further to become a social worker.

These are not my imaginary friends but young women I have met since I have been in Grahamstown’s Rhini township. And there are many others who are in similar situations. They helped me realise that the 8 427 girls who were reported to have fallen pregnant in Eastern Cape schools last year have faces, names and aspirations for their lives.

Whenever I chat to Zandile, we struggle when talking about her future. Her main priority is raising her daughter but there is little she can see ahead for her own life. She unfortunately has limited options as someone who cannot read and write.
There’s a level of regret about many of the decisions she made, the biggest being that she has curbed her freedom to live a life of opportunity in a fast changing world.

One would never believe that she and I form part of the same generation – one that was supposed to experience the joys of living in a free country that guaranteed equal opportunities and a better standard of living. Central to the hopes of both these young women is an education: Zandile recognises she’s doomed without one and Xoliswa realises that she should pursue hers again and hopefully study further.
Education was meant to liberate them, but instead it has played a role in their disempowerment as youth in South Africa. Both their experiences are shaped largely by the lack of quality education and support they received from teachers and family.

I have always been befuddled and angry that I live in a society that is still okay with the disempowerment of young women who in the process of mothering the next generation are already aware of their lack of opportunity. The cosy life I live as a student seems self-indulgent and incongruous when I realise what some young people have to live with in the “new” South Africa.

At some point the blame needs to stop being apportioned to the young women and even pity needs to be examined as they should not be disempowered further as victims.
Listening to Zandile and Xoliswa, their experiences make me realise that I am not part of the “born-free” generation.

Freedom is a nebulous concept and the lived experience of it is even more complex because of the choices that are available when expressing that freedom.
Is there any choice, for example, between dropping out of school or staying in a system that does not add value to your life? Or choosing to have sex without a condom or risk losing a boyfriend?
Is there any freedom of choice between a rock and a hard place?

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