By Doreen Matonga, UNICEF Malawi
Getting educated in most rural communities in Malawi is not an easy task. In Malawi the national school drop-out rate hovers around 10.5% due to reasons which include long distances from home to school forcing children to stay home; poverty as well as unfriendly school environments including lack of class room infrastructure.
For adolescent girls, their reasons for dropping out of school are compounded by the lack of dignified sanitation facilities. In hard to reach areas the situation for many adolescent girls is particularly challenging as the general sanitation and hygiene conditions are not attractive or at times non-existent.
Kaswenthe Primary school in TA Mwewenya in Chitipa, is one of those rural schools where the odds of a learner thriving don’t add up. With a student population of 202 learners and only 2 qualified teachers assisted by 3 teacher assistants, motivating students to stay in school is not as easy. With no female teacher in sight it was particularly difficult for male teachers to encourage adolescent girls to stay in school.
Mobilizing the community for girls education
The introduction of UNICEF’s support through the EU funded Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme has seen some improvement in the school dropout rate for girls in the last two years. Through the implementing partner, Participatory Development Initiatives, the community was mobilized to revive the school Mother Group which was established in 2012 but dissipated over the years. In collaboration with teachers and the community, the Mother Group has also taken the role of councilors providing support to girls through their adolescent years encouraging them to stay in school.
Mercy Gondwe Vice Chairperson of the Kaswenthe Primary school mother group says previously things were bad at the school with some years having less than five girls finishing primary education.
In order to meet the needs of the adolescent girls, the Mother Group mobilized resources for the construction of a girls changing room equipped with soap, buckets and clean water at all times. The private shelter gives adolescent girls an opportunity to change and take care of themselves during their menstruation period. To support the efforts of the Mother Group, the school has for the first time, since its establishment in 1997, recruited a female teacher assistant from the community who also supports the adolescents together with the Mother Group.
Bringing change among adolescents
The situation before the construction of the changing room was dire in the area.
“Most of the girls were encouraged to stay home by their parents upon reaching puberty. They could stay a whole week during menstruation and if they do that over a few months they lose interest in school. The next thing you hear is the girl is pregnant or she is married. And that was really sad for our community,” mourns Gondwe Vice Chairperson of Kaswenthe Primary School Mother group.
“We realized that during our days we did the same thing and now we are struggling with poverty. We didn’t want our children to go through the same. We wanted things to change in our community, and we realized that we are the people that can make a difference in the lives of these girls,” adds Gondwe.
To ensure girls remain in school the Mother Group committed to provide soap through the members’ contribution to the group. They each contribute MK500 which goes towards buying of soap. The school and the Primary Education Advisor also supported the Mother Group with finances to enable them to build the structure and buy the requirements for the room. To ensure that no girl goes home during her menstrual period the Mother Group also provides temporary hand sewn sanitary pads to ensure every girl remains in school. They also ensure that there is at least one member every day of the week to support the girls in case they have questions.
Chairperson of the Kaswenthwe School Sanitation Club, Tandulechi Simwaka is all praise of the menstrual change facility at the school.
“Previously we did not have an opportunity of staying in school even during menstruation. At home they used to tell us to stay home to avoid embarrassing ourselves at school, while the mother groups encourages every girl to stay in school and utilize the menstrual hygiene facility,” says Tandulechi.
“They not only teach us on how to stay hygienic during our menstrual period, the Mother Group is also teaching us life skills to enable us finish our education and say no to early marriage.”
UNICEF — through its Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme — and support from the European Union is implementing a water, sanitation and hygiene project in 15 districts in Malawi, in support of the SDG goals. Mzimba District is among those districts where UNICEF is working with the District Health Office and partner PDI to ensure improved and equitable access to water, sanitation and improved hygiene practices. Apart from promoting good sanitation and hygiene practices in schools, the programme is also promoting attainment of open defecation free status in the district with one Traditional Authority (TA) already declared ODF in the district. This is the first TA to be declared ODF in Chitipa.
For girls like Tandulechi and the rest of the adolescent girls at the Kasenthwe Primary School, a menstrual hygiene facility and a Mother Group that supports them is all they need to remain in school.