By Lulutani Tembo, UNICEF Malawi
The clouds are clearing in Enukweni in rural Mzuzu after some summer rain in the afternoon. Children are gathering toys and playing games near the trading centre as they wait for the rest of their peers to arrive to participate in the afternoon’s children’s corner activities. A composed and cheerful Gertrude Chirambo is one of these children.
Just over three years ago, she dropped out of school and spent a few months at home taking care of her child. Gertrude’s future was looking bleak. However, with her resilient attitude, she was adamant to get her life back on track. This was made possible through Jombo Children’s Corner. She relishes spending her afternoons there with her friends, partaking in fun activities like drama. It keeps her and other children engaged and less likely to get into trouble.
Children’s Corners are community spaces for both in and out of school children aged 6 to 18 years. They provide what is known as an enabling environment that protects girls and boys from violence, abuse, exploitation, and neglect, responding to their developmental needs and enabling them to thrive. UNICEF has been supporting the Government of Malawi to establish Children’s Corners to provide psychosocial support to children. UNICEF also provides resources to the government to train caregivers in children’s corners and also supply recreation materials for children to learn and play. Jombo Children’s Corner has 269 children, comprising 158 girls and 111 boys who fall between 10 and 18 years old. Its location is a perfect place for outdoor activities since the weather in the north of Malawi is cool. Most of the participants are students from the Jombo Primary and Secondary School.
Gertrude is the last of eight children in her family. Her father died when she was in form 2, forcing her mother to fend for her children on her own. Despite the day to day struggles at home, Gertrude was a bright student who loved school, but everything changed when she became pregnant by her boyfriend. “I dropped out of school when I got pregnant as I was about to complete form 2. Life was not easy for me at the time. I was forced to take care of my son alone since his father does not provide us with any support. I did not know how I would manage to raise my child. I used to cry all the time and nearly gave up on my future”, explains Gertrude. Ultimately, the young mother spent a year out of school, staying at home with her baby.
The turning point
One day, as Gertrude and her siblings were chatting at their home, a visitor came. It was Davie Mkandawire, the facilitator at Jombo Children’s Corner. He was following up on Gertrude’s brother who had been absent from Children’s Corner activities for over a month. While chatting with Gertrude’s brother, he noticed Gertrude and thought she would be a great addition to the Children’s Corner. “Davie took some time to encourage me to go back to school and join Jombo Children’s Corner. I was reluctant to accept the advice because I was not ready to face the embarrassment of my peers reminding me that I dropped out of the same school because I had a child at such a young age”, says Gertrude.
The following day, Davie passed by Gertrude’s home and picked her up together with her brother to attend that day’s children’s corner activities. She loved it and has been an active member since. “My first day at the children’s corner was encouraging and motivating. What I loved most was how they taught us about goal setting in life and the importance of education. This was an eye opener on how I can reset my goals and pursue them. I was also happy to note that there was no discrimination and my fears of fellow peers making fun of me and my situation did not happen. In fact, there was also a session on preventing stigma and discrimination on children who are vulnerable. For instance, children living with HIV, poor children and those with disabilities. I have learned a lot since the time I joined the Children’s Corner”.
Jombo Children’s Corner coordinator, Davie Mkandawire is delighted with the growth that children make after joining the Children’s Corners. “I always felt sad when I saw how young people in our community were dropping out of school due to peer pressure, partaking in damaging behaviours such stealing, drinking, teen pregnancies and early marriage”, describes Davie. “I am proud to see most of the children that I encouraged to join the Children’s Corners have developed to their full potential”.
“Every child has the right to experience a safe, healthy and fulfilling childhood. Children’s Corners provide this experience for girls and boys in Malawi, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized”, says Afrooz Kaviani Johnson, Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF Malawi. “Children’s Corners provide a safe space for children and equip girls and boys with life skills and confidence that they then apply in school and other areas of life. UNICEF will continue to work with the Government of Malawi and partners to scale up Children’s Corners and other transformative community-led interventions to realize children’s rights”.
Gertrude went back to school in 2016, a week after joining Jombo Children’s Corner. “I made the decision to go back to school, though I was worried about how my school fees and learning materials would be taken care of. The Children’s Corner took over this responsibility and gathered the resources to make sure that I can stay in school”, says a confident Gertrude. When she returned, she re-enrolled in form 2 and is currently in form 4, the year she is set to write her Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations. Through the help of the Children’s Corner, she was awarded a scholarship from an international organization which will take care of her school fees and learning materials until she finishes secondary school. “The scholarship makes me feel a lot better, I know I can continue my education without experiencing problems and achieve my goal of becoming a teacher in future”, Gertrude says jubilantly.
Children’s Corners activities also helped Gertrude build her confidence. “The Children’s Corner has made me courageous, I know how to reject advances from boys who can disturb my future”, she reveals. “My advice to other girls is to focus on getting educated rather than turning to early marriage”.