Shantel Marekera, Founder of Little Dreamers Foundation and winner of 2017 Social Venture Challenge.

Little Dreamers Foundation Unlocks Potential for Girls’ Education in Zimbabwe

Glenview 8 is a community like any other in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. It is a densely populated settlement, full of life and activity, where the sight of a girl accompanying her grandmother to market on a weekday, selling vegetables or serving customers in the family tuck shop, is not unusual.

Shantel Marekera was once one of these girls. The kind of girl whose grandmother struggled to pay for preschool fees while her mother was away finishing her college education — but also, a girl with a dream.

Raised in Glenview 8 by her grandmother until she was nine years old, Shantel intends to flip the script on the girls’ early education in her community. The founder of The Little Dreamers Foundation, Shantel is determined to help girls in her native community go to school.

Shantel recently won the Resolution Social Venture Challenge at the Mastercard Foundation Baobab Summit in Johannesburg in 2017, a competition that rewards compelling leadership and promising social ventures led by youth. These young leaders earned a fellowship that includes seed funding, mentorship, and access to a network of young global change-makers to pursue impactful projects in their communities. A collaboration between the Mastercard Foundation and The Resolution Project, the Resolution Social Venture Challenge provides a pathway to action for socially responsible young leaders who want to create change that matters in their communities.

In 2005, Zimbabwe’s government ushered in changes to its education system, making it compulsory for every child to graduate from preschool before enrolling in primary school. For most families, however, costs for a child to attend preschool are steep, and particularly prohibitive for families headed by single parents or grandmothers without steady sources of income. The implementation of Statutory Instrument 106 of 2005 started this year, putting primary education out of reach for the daughters of poor families, who often favour the education of sons. In Glenview 8 alone, more than 40 girls are unable to attend preschool, and figures could be higher.

Shantel is determined that these disadvantaged girls will have their chance at a primary education. “When I went home over the summer recently, I realized how preschools in Zimbabwe have become so pricey. They are even more expensive than formal education itself,” she said. Shantel is a 20-year-old pursuing justice studies at Arizona State University (ASU) in the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, which supports students chosen specifically because of their academic talent, social consciousness, and leadership qualities.

She said the idea to create the Little Dreamers Foundation came to mind after she realized that many children in Glenview 8 could not access primary education simply because they were being left out of preschool.

“This is when I realized that I needed to do something, but it remained only an idea. Then I won the Resolution Social Venture Challenge,” she said.

The Little Dreamers Foundation is expected to open in June 2018 with 12 children in a pilot that will prepare the ground for the whole country, allowing the children to attend preschool for up to two years.

“We are only starting with a cohort of 12 children, but we hope to increase the numbers over time and even spread to other high-density areas in Harare, and ultimately the whole country,” said Shantel.

Most preschools charge between US$70–200 per month for each child, but Shantel’s program will see them paying less than US$30 for their tuition, meals, and scholastic materials. The parents or guardians will be allowed to pay the money in installments throughout the month. Reduced rates will be made possible through volunteers, fundraising, and a poultry project.

“The preschool is created to serve the community and it should be operated by the community,” explained Shantel. “Chickens will be sold in the community and other nearby communities to raise money for the preschool’s operations. Additionally, the Little Dreamers Foundation will partner with local companies and organizations to host four major fundraisers every year, with proceeds invested in the preschool.”

While the Little Dreamers Foundation will emphasize enrollment of girls, accepting one boy for every three girls, boys will not be left out. When families experience economic hardships, parents are often forced to invest in a single child, often preferring to educate a son over a daughter. Daughters, some believe, can learn a skill such as sewing and wait for an early marriage. Yet, girls are falling behind, and the Little Dreamers Foundation wants to redress this gender inequity.

“I am passionate about empowering the girl child. Girls have so much potential, and with the right mentorship, resources, and efforts, girls can do anything,” said Shantel.

The news about the Little Dreamers Foundation has excited the community, especially grandmothers who have borne both the joys and burdens of looking after these children, many of whom have lost parents to Zimbabwe’s elevated rates of HIV and AIDS. Sixty-year-old Fairness Bechintein is one of the grandmothers in Glenview 8.

“In this country, we have a lot of children who do not attend preschool or primary education and I know they will benefit a lot from this program,” she said. “I am grateful for Shantel’s initiative and I know it will help a lot of other grandparents to provide an education to our grandchildren.”

Miriam Makanda, also from Glenview 8, agrees with Bechintein.

“Many families will benefit from this program. As a widow and grandmother, it is hard to provide food on the table every day, clean clothes, and still be able to send them to school. I do not work, so there is no way I can afford these expensive preschools,” she explained.

Already, Ntombizodwa Makuyana and Lovender Phiri, both Mastercard Foundation Scholars at ASU, as well as Tanyaradzwa Chauruka and Luann May Gwanzura at the University of Zimbabwe, have joined Shantel to run the Little Dreamers Foundation. Others are Chisamiso Tinorwirashe at Midlands State University and Yvette Muzhona, who is currently not in school.

Shantel believes she has found the right platform to give back to her community.

“I am where I am today because people believed in me. They believed in my dreams and aspirations — now, it’s my turn to be the person who believes in the dreams and talents of children,” she said.

Pius Sawa is a freelance journalist based in Kenya. His stories have appeared in Reuters, Farm Radio International, and Inter Press Service. This article originally appeared in The Source, Zimbabwe.