An absence of boarding facilities for high school pupils in Zambia's northern province of Luapula is forcing children to share lodgings with their peers - unsupervised by adults - leading to teenage pregnancies and HIV/AIDS infections.
Many children live a long way from school and prefer to rent accommodation nearby. Grade 12 pupil Dorcas, 17, stopped attending the Mabumba High day school, about 20km east of provincial capital Mansa, after becoming pregnant.
"We were staying the three of us [girls], then we started sharing the house with three guys and that is how we paired ourselves. We just wanted some form of emotional support; life is really tough out there. So, the whole of last year we were living together with the guys and would have [unprotected] sex almost every night but everything was OK," she told IRIN.
"When I missed [my periods] early this year, I decided to go to Mansa General Hospital for a [pregnancy] test and the results were positive... I left school because everyone was laughing at me. They were saying 'this one is a married woman' after they knew [of my pregnancy]."
Mabumba High School enrols some of its 690 pupils from as far away as the capital Lusaka and about 500 of the children are responsible for their own accommodation arrangements.
"We couldn’t find a place in a proper boarding school in Luapula. Everywhere we went, we were told 'the places are full', and that’s how my mother decided to bring me here. She sends money every month for rentals, food and groceries," Margaret Chanda, 16, a Grade 12 pupil from Ndola in the Copperbelt and attending Mabumba High School, told IRIN.
She shares a two-room grass-thatched hut with her friend and pays US$5 a month.
Wamunyima Chingumbe, a Health Ministry director in Mansa District, said the absence of boarding facilities at day schools had led to teenage pregnancies and made pupils vulnerable to contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs). After malaria, STIs were the most common ailments recorded at makeshift boarding high schools.
Higher STI rates
"In terms of HIV/AIDS and other STIs, quasi-boarding schools record higher numbers of pupils with STIs compared to schools with [official] boarding facilities," Chingumbe said.
|Mabumba High School once recorded 13 HIV-positive female cases and four HIV-positive male cases out of an enrolment population of about 600 pupils|
"Mabumba High School once recorded 13 HIV-positive female cases and four HIV-positive male cases out of an enrolment population of about 600 pupils," Chingumbe said.
"On the other hand there are very few cases of HIV-positive/STI cases recorded [at official] boarding schools, and this could be attributed to the fact that pupils are confined in one place and dormitories are out of bounds for the opposite sex," he said.
Government investment in universal primary education has not been matched in the high school sector, and the 2008 scrapping of qualifying examinations for Grade 10 has put more pressure on school facilities, with more and more pupils continuing their education. The province has 23 high schools, six of which are day schools.
Elizabeth Mushili, coordinator of the Mansa District Women’s Development Association, a gender-based advocacy group, wants the government to equip all schools with boarding facilities.
"These children adopt confused, free-range lifestyles. We are of the view that government should have been more considerate and constructed dormitories for both girls and boys at these high schools. Or better still, they [government] should have built more day high schools to cut down on the distances [between the schools].
"Early pregnancies are very common because of lack of parental care; no one is looking after these children and, hence, they can do anything," Mushili told IRIN.
"We have pupils, especially girls, who get abused by male adults for sexual exploitation; we have many children around 13, 14 years carrying their own children and dropping out of school in Mabumba and Chembe [another day high school in Mansa where children use makeshift accommodation]," she said.
Luapula is one of Zambia’s poorest provinces: it has a poverty level of 75 percent, compared with the national average of 64 percent. According to UNAIDS the national HIV prevalence for sexually active adults aged 15-49 is 14.3 percent.
"Many of us end up sending our children to these weekly-boarding schools like Mabumba because we have no money to send them to boarding schools. We are poor," Joseph Mutale, a small farmer in Mansa, told IRIN.
"I give my son a tin of maize [for grinding into the staple maize meal] every month and 10,000 kwacha [US$2] to buy relish but he keeps on complaining about other things that I can’t afford to give him," he said.
Pupils attending boarding high schools pay up to $300 for a three-month term, but day schools like Mabumba only charge $40 a term.
Zambian law classifies sex with anyone under 16 as defilement, and is punishable by a prison term of up to 25 years.
"We have many children below 16 years who are very sexually active. It is defilement [of a minor] but she will not see it that way. There are many defilement cases going on here; they are contracting many diseases especially STIs; some are falling pregnant," a teacher at Mabumba High School, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN.
Luapula's provincial education officer Florence Kanchebele told IRIN the government had begun constructing boarding facilities at two day schools – in Ponde and Lukwesa, and acknowledged the problems associated with learners renting accommodation close to schools. She said some pupils engaged in "what may be termed as 'marriages of convenience' with other pupils and sometimes, community members due to economic reasons".
The school authorities were still responsible for their children outside school hours and landlords were "instructed to protect the pupils, report to the school any bad behaviour by such pupils, and sensitize the pupils on the dangers of HIV/AIDS, STIs and early pregnancies," she added.
Ruth Mwewa, a landlord for several pupils from Mabumba High School in the past, told IRIN: "No teacher has ever approached me to talk about these pupils’ behaviour. Two of the girls I have kept here got pregnant and stopped school. The girls are especially a big problem because they are forever found with boys or married men who come with cars."