Removing barriers to girls’ education

Girls at risk; poverty, early pregnancies and child marriages force girls out of school
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

By Rebecca Phwitiko, UNICEF Malawi

This lakeshore town is Malawi’s tourism hub. Beautiful hotels and resorts along Lake Malawi offer getaway destinations to local and international tourists, as well as employment to the locals. Mangochi is also home to thousands of fishermen and fish traders. There is a vibrant business scene in the border town as young men often trek off to South Africa in search of better prospects and bring back all sorts of treats that are sold at the local markets.

But the other side of Mangochi is much like the rest of rural Malawi; families struggling to make ends meet, unable to keep their children in school. It is also here in Mangochi where Malawi’s shocking child marriage and teenage pregnancy statistics come alive. 46% of girls in the country are married by the age of 18 while 29 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 have already begun childbearing.

Overcoming difficult odds

19-year-old Nelly Lloyd is in standard 8 at Namasimba primary school. You can tell from her age that she is a bit old for her class, but this is not uncommon in rural Malawi. The government regulation is that children should start primary school at the age of six. This would mean they complete primary school by the age of 13. But one will often find 19 and even 22 year olds still in primary school and the reasons are varied.

Nelly is the second child in a family of 7 children. She lives in Nkulumba village, some 2 kilometers away from Namasimba school. Her younger siblings go to this school. “My father died a long time ago and my mother struggles to support us,” says Nelly.

When she was 15, she met a 21-year-old man at the market. He worked for some agricultural trading company so she believed he would take care of her and provide what she was lacking at home. Without much of a formal ceremony, Nelly moved 900 kilometers away to the man’s home in the north. A few months later she gave birth to a baby girl. Away from her family and friends, Nelly became easy prey to an abusive man. “He would come home drunk and beat me. Sometimes he disappeared for days, leaving me and my daughter with nothing to eat,” explains Nelly.

She eventually got a message to her mother through an uncle. Her mother borrowed money for the bus fare to get her daughter and granddaughter home. Nelly says she was happy to be back home, to familiar surroundings.

It has been a long road back to school for Nelly
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/ Eldson Chagara

A fresh start

A few weeks after Nelly’s return, four women from the village came to visit her and her mother. They spoke to her about going back to school, asking if she wanted to go back and if her mother would take care of her daughter if Nelly returned to school. Nelly told them she wanted to return to school, and her mother was more than happy to take care of the 2-year-old baby.

And this is how Nelly returned to school. The four women who visited her and encouraged her to return to school are members of a mother group. Mother groups are found in most villages in Malawi. They work with teachers, parents and girls to promote girls’ education. With support from the Norwegian Government, UNICEF is empowering existing community structures such as mother groups to promote girls’ education. This is being done within the UN Joint Programme for Girls’ Education (UNJPE) in Mangochi and two other districts; Dedza and Salima. The aim is to enable mother groups to reach more girls like Nelly and many others before they even think of dropping out of school. 81 mother groups have been trained to support and empower girls.

Welcoming teen mothers back to class

Nelly enjoys science subjects; she particularly likes to hear how the body works because she wants to be a nurse. Coming back to school was scary, Nelly confesses. She had been out for close to 2 years. She was afraid she would be the oldest in her class and that it would be difficult to catch up with the lessons. She was particularly dreading the reaction of the other kids at school. “I was afraid they would laugh at me or tease me because I have a child now. But on the first day, the head teacher announced at assembly that anyone who would make fun of me because I am a mother would be disciplined, so I think that helped.”

Nelly (R) has returned to a friendly environment at school
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/ Eldson Chagara

Every Friday the women from the mother group come to Namasimba primary school to meet girls from standard 5 to standard 8, typically aged 13 to 19 years. The women encourage girls to open up about any problems they face at school or at home or anything that could potentially make them drop out of school.

The Norwegian Government’s support also enables the World Food Programme (WFP) to provide meals to all students in the 81 primary schools, as well as take home rations for the most vulnerable children; girls from standard 5 to 8 as well as orphaned boys. This means Nelly has less to worry about; she gets to eat at school and the money helps her buy anything she needs at school.

Many vulnerable children benefit from the meals provided at school 
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/ Eldson Chagara

In this partnership of 3 UN agencies; UNICEF, WFP and UNFPA, the Norwegian Government is providing resources to address the factors that place girls at risk of dropping out of school. Charles Nabongo, UNICEF Malawi’s Chief of Education says this partnership is helping Malawi build a stronger education system that delivers quality education to boys and girls. “It is particularly important to ensure that parents, teachers and local leaders are empowered to promote girls’ rights to education and create an environment that sustains it. To ensure inclusiveness, both schools and communities need to adapt to the challenges faced by girls rather than force them to drop out,” says Nabongo.

Powerful advocates for girls

Sparrow Kunje started out as an assistant teacher in 1997. He has risen through the ranks and is now head teacher at Namasimba Primary School. He loves making a difference in the lives of children under his care. Lately he has witnessed a lot of improvements at his school. He says the UNJPGE has increased support for girls’ education in the community.

The chiefs have established by-laws to keep girls in school. Parents are not allowed to send children on errands during school hours. It is the first week of a new school year and Kunje is keeping track of all new and returning students. “By the end of this week I will send a list of students who have not come to school to the chief and the police to investigate,” says Kunje.

Head teacher Sparrow Kunje is happy with the improvements at his school 
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/ Eldson Chagara

Within the school, a lot has changed as well. Teachers use positive discipline to enforce school rules and regulations. A group of teacher counsellors engage with any learners who break school rules in a peaceful, non-abusive manner. Kunje believes that this has improved attendance.

There is also a special changing room at school for the girls. This means Nelly and other girls have a safe, private place to clean and change during their monthly menstruation. Kunje says the interventions are strategic. “The UNJPGE is addressing many of the problems that force girls out of school.”

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