Stories of resilience: Small loans help girls go back to school

Adolescent girls in class at Nkumba in Mangochi
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

By Joseph Scott, UNICEF Malawi

Following a good harvest this year, Malawi’s hunger crisis has eased for the time being. But it’s only a matter of time before the next drought or flood occurs. This series looks at how communities are preparing themselves for the next natural disaster.

Mikhute is a busy village, in Salima district, that borders the iconic Lake Malawi. Unlike other villages further inland, Mikhute is always bustling with activity. Fishermen and vendors stream in and out of the village as they make the most of the fish in the lake.

The blessing of the lake, unfortunately, does not extend to everyone who lives in this small community. Tiny huts with half-blown off grass thatched roofs and patchy fields tell tales of a community held tight in the grip of poverty.

As the sun sets, a semblance of calm descends on Mikhute. The fishermen and vendors are gone. Then some loud chit chat breaks the silence as young girls, several carrying babies on their backs, file out from one of the community halls that sits in the centre of the village.

The girls, aged between 10 and 19 years, are coming from an adolescent literacy class that teach basic skills such as reading and writing. Most of the 28 girls in this class dropped out in the lower primary classes. Some had never set a foot in school.

Hunger increasing school dropouts

Annie Asani (17) is one of the girls who joined the literacy class after dropping out of school in 2012, when she was in Standard 4. Annie, an only child, was abandoned by her father when she was nine months old. Her mother died when she was three years old, leaving her with her grandmother.

“I was adopted by grandmother who raised me as her own child. I only learnt that she wasn’t my real mother when I was in primary school,” says Annie.

Her grandmother, popularly known as Abiti, is almost blind. She survives by making reed mats that she displays by the roadside near her home. Although the mats are beautiful, the market for them is small and it takes weeks or months to sell one.

Annie’s grandmother weaves mats for sale but she has to work to supplement their income
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

“We don’t have land for farming,” says Annie. “When my grandfather died, his relatives grabbed it from us. So we have to buy food on a daily basis, which means I have to work to find the money.”

Poverty exposing girls to abuse

As the only child in the family, the burden to look for food fell on Annie’s shoulders. The lake was the only place she was guaranteed a job.

“I was lucky to get some work helping fisherman to unload their catch from the boats,” says Annie. “Sometimes I would also get work to carry the fish for the vendors to the bus stop.”

The small jobs kept Annie and her grandmother going. On a good day, she would get 1,000 kwacha. The situation was different when fishing season was over. Authorities would close the lake to allow the fish to breed, meaning Annie had no job and no income. During this time, the same lake becomes a dangerous place for young girls.

“I was struggling so much and was glad to find a way out of my situation,” Annie says. “This is when I met a fisherman who promised to marry me. I got pregnant and when I told him, he disappeared. I have never seen him since.”

Annie was abandoned by his boyfriend when she was pregnant 
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andy Brown

A new start

Annie’s struggle with pregnancy gave her a new perspective on life. She started dreaming of what she could have been if she had had an education. But with a young son and a grandmother to feed, the prospect of getting back to school seemed far-fetched.

Fate finally smiled upon her, when in 2016, a literacy centre for out-of-school girls was set up in her area. The centre was established by UNICEF, with funding from the Government of Norway and in collaboration with Adolescent Girls Literacy (AGLIT) the Ministry of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development. As well as basic literacy skills like writing and reading, the girls also learn about nutrition, parenting and sexual and reproductive health.

The programme offers girls an opportunity to meet and discuss every day issues that affect their lives
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andy Brown

With support from UNICEF, AGLIT has established 53 centres in Mangochi offering second chance education to out-of-school girls. The centres target girls like Annie who are not attending school for various reasons including early pregnancies, child marriages, and poverty.

“I didn’t hesitate to register when I learnt that a centre was open in our village for girls who dropped out of school. I always dreamt of becoming a nurse and going back to school is the first step to achieving my goals,” says Annie, who is now five months into the course.

Since she enrolled, Annie has significantly improved her reading and writing skills. She will receive a certificate after completing the nine months course. For Annie, this will not be the end of the journey. She hopes to go back to formal school and complete her primary education.

Small grants for adolescent girls

However, for her dream to come to fruition, Annie still has to balance learning and survival. Apart from putting food on the table for her family, she also has to work to get money for basics such as soap.

The adolescent girls’ literacy project was designed with this in mind. Most of the girls who enroll in the programme are either young mothers or are expected to work. To shelter them from such harsh realities, there is a revolving grant component within the project that seeks to empower the girls financially. This builds their resilience to cope with natural disasters such as droughts and floods, and other unexpected setbacks.

“We have some small grants that we give to the centres to distribute among the girls,” says Kimanzi Muthengi, Education Specialist for UNICEF Malawi. “The girls themselves agree on how best to use them.”

Some centres have set up village banks where the girls get loans on low interest rates to start a small businesses. In Mikhute, the girls have a revolving loan fund, where each girl gets 10,000 kwacha, which is passed on to another girl within three months. They have also bought some chickens, which they plan to share when they breed.

“The revolving grant is one way of protecting the girls from engaging in risky coping strategies,” says Kimanzi. “Many of these girls have had difficult experiences and we want them to refocus and start thinking about a better future. This is only possible if we arm them with education and give them a push by investing in their livelihoods.”

For Annie, the revolving grant has helped her start a doughnut business. She prepares her fritters in the morning and takes them to the lake where she has a loyal band of customers. In the afternoon, she goes to the literacy class.

“The men at the lake now view me differently,” says Annie. “They respect me as they know that I can stand on my own. In the past, I would go begging for jobs and sometimes the men would physically abuse me.”

On a good day, Annie makes about 4,000 kwacha, which she use to buy flour for the business and food for her family.

Facing the future with hope

Armed with literacy skills and a small business, Annie is now able to resist and withstand economic shocks caused by an ever changing climate. The knowledge she has gained so far, has not only helped her to take good care of her child, but has exposed her to life beyond the village. She now dreams of becoming a nurse.

Annie’s grandmother, Abiti, sees a bright future for her. “I have always wanted Annie to be educated,” she says. “I didn’t have a chance to go to school and I don’t want her to fall in the same trap. The world has changed since I was born and it needs people who are educated.”

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