Retaining Girls in School: Bantwana’s Early Warning System Identifies Adolescents at Risk of Dropping Out

Photo of three beneficiaries participating in a Stop the Bus event in Zimbabwe. Photo by Joshua Kumunda. Across sub-Saharan Africa, adolescent girls and young women are among the most vulnerable: they are at the front lines of the HIV epidemic, suffer disproportionately from sexual violence and harmful gender norms, and are far more likely to drop out of school than their male peers. Across Africa, 49 million girls are out of primary and secondary school. In Zimbabwe, approximately 22,000 girls drop out of school each year due to pregnancy. National policies in that country now enable teen mothers to re-enter and attend school after their babies are born, but once girls leave school they rarely return: stigmatization from teachers, peers, and parents, along with the economic and basic responsibilities of young motherhood create near-insurmountable barriers to returning to school. Girls who leave school are economically vulnerable—and research shows that economic vulnerability is one of the greatest factors in HIV risk.

What if we had the power to help break this cycle of extreme vulnerability? Every year that a girl stays in school has a positive impact on her future health and economic well-being. In Eswatini and Zimbabwe, with funding from the DREAMS Innovation Challenge, we developed Early Warning Systems (EWS) that empower schools to identify adolescent girls before they drop out, and provide the necessary supports to keep them in school.

What is the Early Warning System?

We piloted the Early Warning System in 20 secondary schools in two high HIV prevalence districts in Zimbabwe (Gweru and Mazowe). We trained teachers to use a very simple two-page paper-based early warning tool, which draws on the ABC risk indicators for school drop out (Absenteeism, Behavior, Course Failure). We leveraged existing attendance lists and social history forms to develop the tool, and teachers filled out the form in their classrooms.

It Takes a Village

Bantwana's Early Warning System (EWS) graphic shows t he relationship between the EWS Taskforce, the action plan, and the monitoring system of the National Case Management System.

In Zimbabwe, we engaged the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, school administrators, and community care workers to adapt the tool and set up EWS Taskforces. EWS Taskforces are comprised of guidance and counseling teachers, headmasters, classroom teachers, community care workers, and student representatives. Taskforce members meet monthly to refer and follow up on the girls identified as at risk of dropping out: the Taskforce’s mandate is to ensure these girls receive the supports needed to stay in school. Taskforce members link identified girls to community care workers through the National Case Management System, who provide referrals for HIV and gender-based violence (GBV) services.

EWS Taskforce members develop action plans for each at-risk girl. Action plans include linkages to the following supports:

  • In-school resources—this includes psychosocial support from the guidance or counseling teachers and after-school academic support from teachers;
  • Case management support—Community care workers can refer girls to child protection services, and provide linkages to HIV and GBV services.

Finally, we set up a monitoring system to track students’ progress and address challenges as they arise. Once a student is identified as at risk through the Early Warning System, she is enrolled in the school’s EWS Tracking System. The EWS Taskforce for each school monitors the children through their teachers and student representatives. At the community level, community care workers monitor the child’s progress and can provide feedback to youth and their families.  

Expanding the Early Warning System to Support More Girls

Early warning systems are easily scalable, and far less costly than trying to reach girls once they have dropped out of school. In 2018, we expanded the Early Warning System in Zimbabwe under the Child Protection Fund – National Case Management Program to identify all boys and girls under 18 in six districts who are at risk of dropping out. We are also using the Early Warning System to identify child protection risks (including neglect, child labor, violence against children, and other forms of abuse)—and are piloting this expanded EWS tool in 60 schools. The Government of Zimbabwe has adopted the Early Warning System, integrating it into the National Case Management System managed by the Department of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.

In Eswatini, our Early Warning System is being piloted through mobile technology directly to girls alongside a digitally delivered life skills and protective assets program. The GO GIRLS CONNECT! Program includes built-in self-assessment tools that enable girls to self-identify as being at risk of drop out, or as victims of GBV—and then links them to school and community supports.

Access to equitable education for girls is enshrined in both the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 28) and the Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 4: Quality Education and Goal 5: Gender Equality). As we bring the Early Warning System to more schools and communities across sub-Saharan Africa, we can reduce the number of girls who drop out of school early. Our hope is that by linking these young women into school and community supports, we can help provide the promise of a healthy, stable future—which is their right.