Signposts and second chances: teaching girls to read and write

Class in session: UNICEF and its partners are giving adolescent girls a second chance to learn 
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/ Eldson Chagara

By Rebecca Phwitiko, UNICEF Malawi

It’s about 3 in the afternoon, long after regular classes have ended at Mpingwe Primary School in Mangochi. 30 girls sit in a classroom. Some have babies on their backs but everyone’s attention is focused on the teacher in front. They are learning the basics, ordinarily meant for much younger students. They are reading out letters and numbers on the blackboard in front of them and taking turns writing them.

There’s a relaxed, friendly mood in the room. The girls are sitting in four groups and the teacher occasionally walks around to assist them individually as needed.

18-year-old Daima Bwanali is one of the students. Her parents are farmers, relying on the small piece of land behind their house for food. They get hired to work on other people’s gardens for money. “Sometimes we only had just one meal all day. I stopped going to school so that I could help my mother run some businesses,” explains Daima.

Mother’s little helper

Daima dropped out of school when she was just 9 years old, before she had even learnt to read or write. For three years, she tagged along with her mother as they looked for piecework and occasionally sold vegetables at the market.

Daima’s mother asked a friend who worked at Chowe trading centre, some 40 kilometers away, to find a job for her daughter. A few days later 12-year-old Daima travelled to Chowe, the farthest she has been from home, to start her first job as a housemaid for a family of four. She washed, cleaned, cooked and took care of a 5-year-old child. She used to get 2000 kwacha every month, just under $3. She saved up some of this money and sent to it to her mother every couple of months. Daima eventually lost her job because she did not see eye to eye with one of the family members.

She returned home at 15, straight into the arms of a 22-year-old man. She met him in the village and soon started spending a lot of time with him. “My mother encouraged me to get married, to avoid a pregnancy out of wedlock. So, we did our nikkah (marriage) and I moved in with him.”

Like her parents, Daima’s husband’s main occupation is farming. So, life isn’t much different from the way it was at home. It bothers Daima so much that she cannot read. She particularly finds signposts intriguing. “I would like to be able to read what the signposts say. There are signposts everywhere I go and I want to know what they say,” explains Daima.

A second chance for Daima

When the village chief announced that there was an opportunity for girls who had dropped out of school to learn to read and write Daima decided to enroll. The girls complete a 9-month functional literacy course. Classes run from 2pm to 5 o’clock every week day. Daima does her chores around the house and leaves her baby with her mother who lives close by so that she can go to school.

Daima’s wish is to be able to read signposts. For now, she can just make out the letters 
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/ Eldson Chagara

These classes offer girls like Daima a second chance to learn. The second chance education activity targets girls who dropped out of school or fell behind, to improve their ability to read and write. Since the programme started, over 6000 girls have completed the 9 month course, and some of them have returned to regular school. The activity is one of the interventions within the UN Joint Programme for Girls’ Education (UNJPGE) funded by the Norwegian Government. UNICEF and its partners implement this activity in Mangochi, Dedza and Salima districts.

“Through this activity, we are identifying and providing second chances to girls like Daima to get back into the school stream. We are empowering them and their communities to overcome economic and culture barriers to girls’ education,” says, Charles Nabongo, UNICEF Malawi’s Chief of Education.

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