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Eswatini Queen Bringing Girls Back to School

By Nokukhanya Musi‚ÄďAimienoho, bird story agency

Eswatini – When 16-year-old Nomalungelo* (not her real name) lost her only surviving parent to COVID-19, she dropped out of school to fend for her younger siblings.

“I had to wake up as early as 5 am and leave the informal settlement to look for work. On some days, I’d be lucky and make E50 (US$3) from reselling the scrap metal I found from the dumpsite, but on normal days, I’d make E30 (US$1.50).”

She also hints at experiencing sexual abuse by men who expected payment ‘in kind’ for any help they rendered her.

Nomalungelo tells us that school was the only “safe space” she knew, and it also gave her “hopes of a better future.”

This is just one of the many stories that spurred Queen Nozizwe Pearl Ka Mulela-Zulu to work to ensure girls in Eswatini attend school.

Passionate about women and youth empowerment, Mulela-Zulu, the second wife of King Misuzulu ka Zwelithini-Zulu, is the Managing Director of Eswatini Development and Savings Bank and the patron of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE, Eswatini chapter).

Mulela-Zulu’s passion for education has deep roots. Her mother, Lydia Makhubu, was the first LiSwati to obtain a PhD, the first female Vice-Chancellor of the University of Swaziland (now the University of Eswatini) and the co-founder of FAWE in the 1980s.

In November 2022, FAWE Africa held a fund-raising dinner in Nairobi to help over 16 million African girls access education. The chief guest at the event, Mulela-Zulu, spoke with bird story agency and explained her vision and plans for girls and women’s education in Eswatini.

**You are the current patron of FAWEESWA. What does this mean to you?**

No words can express how humbled and honoured I am to be the patron of an organisation my mother founded. Working with FAWEESA brings me closer to her because access to education for girls is something she strongly believed in and spent most of her life advocating for.

I’m happy that I have been afforded this opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a woman I loved, admired and looked up to.

**What are the ways you know and are working on to ensure girls in Eswatini access education?**

The first step is to research the factors that restrict their access to education in the first place. I have noted that the barriers are context-specific and how they manifest and operate means that an intervention that is effective in one setting may not necessarily be effective in another.

However, a multipronged approach is required to address challenges such as the inability to afford tuition and fees, insufficient academic support, child marriage, adolescent pregnancy, inadequate menstrual hygiene management, and a gender-insensitive school environment.

This includes carrying out community-wide information campaigns to change community attitudes on schooling girls and providing information about family planning and employment opportunities as an alternative to early marriage and childbearing.

Other initiatives include giving financial incentives to discourage child marriages or modifying school policies and practices to create a safer environment.

Can you tell us more about FAWE?

As FAWE Eswatini (FAWEESWA), we are a National Chapter of FAWE, and it is our role, through the leadership of FAWE, to carry out the activities that we collectively agree upon. While we are a semi-autonomous entity, we don’t work in silos but we will collaborate as much as possible to ensure that we get as many girls back into school as possible.

I have no illusions that access to education for all girls can be achieved in a few years. Still – the incremental steps we will take in this journey and the few lives this organisation will positively impact, make the journey worthwhile.

As a patron, bank MD and queen, what do you bring into this role?

I will use every opportunity I am accorded to pull up other women as I progress on my career path and in the different roles I hold. I will highlight the plight of girls and women in educational and scientific leadership roles and actively seek out more opportunities for them.

I am also a firm believer in mentorship, and I have offered to mentor some young women on their chosen career paths. I will continue to do this and look for others among my peers who can do the same.

I will leverage and pressure my peers and contacts in the banking and other industries to make donations that would otherwise be out of reach for the organisation. I will also encourage other renowned leaders to contribute their time and knowledge to the intellectual enrichment of FAWESWA’s programs.

How can women and girls in Eswatini and Africa be encouraged to pursue more STEM courses and careers?

STEM is a growing occupational option, and yes, the number of women in these careers is often lower than men. This gender gap could be a self-perpetuating problem as young women see few women going into science, technology, engineering, and math fields, so they have fewer role models and examples to follow.

There is a need to highlight more women in STEM careers so that girls have these positive role models to look up to.

Also, I believe it is up to us to inspire a new generation of young men and women who are taught early on that one’s gender should not determine what career path one follows. All jobs should be equally and equitably accessible, and women and men should be paid equally for the same position.

We can also establish mentoring or tutoring sessions for girls in STEM subjects and provide them with the necessary materials to pursue these subjects in schools.

What final advice do you have for any girls or women reading this?

There are more ways to get to where you want to go. Some barriers will require that you go over them, while others require that you go under them or to the side. Whichever way you need to go, don’t stop going. Refocusing is not the end of the world. So, never stop hoping. Never stop trying. The world needs you to keep trying.

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