Graduating from high school can be an insurmountable challenge for girls in rural areas of Africa. Even when the costs of schooling are guaranteed, the problems of day to day life are often overwhelming, especially for orphans.
Hellen Mphande is a teacher who mentors pupils who need extra guidance. She is a thirty-three year old mother of two who teaches at a high school in northern Zambia. It was in this role that she met Bridget*, an 11th grade student supported by Camfed - the Campaign for Female Education. Hellen noticed that Bridget seemed despondent and easily discouraged in class and set out to build the student's trust by taking every opportunity to encourage her.
Bridget was orphaned at the age of four and taken in by an aunt, while her six brothers and sisters were sent to other relatives. Though Bridget lived at boarding school during term time, she spent three months a year with her aunt during school holidays. As Bridget's aunt had her own children to care for and a heavy workload as a subsistence farmer, she expected Bridget to do her share. When Bridget returned to school, Hellen could see that her hands were heavily blistered and Bridget told her that she had been clearing land for maize and groundnuts.
Hellen learned that she was so unhappy that she was considering moving to stay with her grandmother in a distant province. However, that move would have jeopardized Bridget's education as there was no suitable school nearby.
While Bridget's situation was difficult, Hellen knew that her aunt offered a stable, secure home, which kept her safe. Hellen had seen too many girls become pregnant and leave school; she didn't want that for Bridget.
"I told her it's natural to want to have a parent. But school will be your place of comfort if you're not finding that at home," Hellen says. "I worked to make sure she did not feel alone and let her know there are people who truly care about her. We made plans to help her get through."
Today, 19-year-old Bridget reports that things are much better at home. The 12th grader is poised to graduate high school and is looking forward to university. "She helped me solve the problems I faced," says Bridget.
Bridget's story demonstrates the importance of the relationship between teachers and pupils in keeping girls in education. Bridget has attended school since 7th grade with comprehensive financial support from Camfed. Alongside the finance, the training of teacher mentors is central to Camfed's Model. Camfed has trained more than 6,700 teacher mentors in its 4,743 partner schools in sub-Saharan Africa since 1993.
Teacher mentors make girls like Bridget feel safe and supported. They enable schools to provide social care alongside subject teaching and play a critical protective role in girls' lives.
It's not enough to remove the financial barriers to education for girls like Bridget. Offering girls social and psychological support is as important to girls' success as opening the schoolhouse door.
Bridget now wants to be a teacher mentor, like Hellen. "I want to help other girls not to give up even if they don't have parents. I want to help them change their lives."
* Not her real name
Brooke Hutchinson is the Co-Director of Camfed USA. Camfed fights poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa by educating girls and empowering women to be leaders of change. Since 1993, 2,420,900 children have benefited from Camfed's innovative education programs in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi.