By Andrew Brown, UNICEF Malawi
An unusual sight greets visitors to Headmaster Emmanuel Mabwera’s house at Kampini Primary School, Dedza. The front room has been converted into a workshop for the Mother Group, which coordinates between the school and local community. Old fashioned sewing machines sit on desks, surrounded by old clothes and materials. The mothers are hard at work sewing sanitary pads for adolescent girls, to prevent them missing school during their periods.
As they work, the women raise their voices in song, drowning out the repetitive noise of the sewing machines. “We are proud to be members of the Mother Group,” they sing in a gospel style, clapping and swaying. “We are proud to be promoting girls’ education.”
Potato seller Rosie Kayenda, 49, is a member of the group, which comprises 10 mothers, three village chiefs and the school headmaster. Their main purpose is to prevent school dropout. If children stop attending school, the Mother Group meet with the chiefs and headmaster to discuss their case. They then go to see the parents of the child. By going with the chief’s backing, they are often successful at returning the children to school.
“I was inspired and motivated to join the Mother Group,” Rosie says. “When I travelled with my potato business, I realised that the villages here were behind compared to others where communities were more organised. I love listening to the radio and heard programmes about communities working to keep children in school. Dedza has got a bad name for illiteracy, and I wanted to be part of making it known for something else.”
The Mother Group also raises funds to pay for school expenses. As Treasurer of the group, Rosie keeps track of the money and makes sure it is spent correctly. “The mothers all do piece work two days a week,” she says. “We save the money we earn to buy school uniforms, books and food for children who return to school. While I’m doing this work, I ask a family member to mind my stall, so I don’t lose business.”
Saved from marriage
One of the children Rosie helped return to school is 17-year-old Hawa Ali Malenya. She sits on the porch outside her family home in a small village near Kampini School. It’s further off road, accessible by foot or bicycle. Dedza is the highest town in Malawi and there’s a noticeable chill in the air. Behind the small group of houses rise craggy mountains, famous for prehistoric rock art.
Last year, Hawa was caught by her father having sex with her boyfriend. He was very angry and decided that she should leave school and get married. Hawa’s boyfriend’s parents disagreed and brought the case to the Mother Group. After consulting with the headmaster and chiefs, Rosie went to see Hawa’s parents and persuaded them to send her back to school.
“I talked to them nicely and asked them to look at other families in the village whose children had finished school,” Rosie explains. “I said you should have aspirations for your child. I told them about role models who have gone to University and become teachers or nurses. The village headman also talked to Hawa’s father man to man.”
As well as talking to the parents, Rosie also spoke to Hawa on her own. “I made sure she wasn’t pregnant and counselled her on the dangers of child marriage. I promised her a new school uniform and free school meals. And I told her the headmaster was very open to receive her back at school. I am very proud of this case, that it worked out so well.”
Hawa is shy at home in front of her mother, but opens up once she is back at school. “I would have been very sad to have dropped out just because of that boy,” she says. “My favourite subject is maths. I would like to be an accountant. I like school because it opens up your mind. We learn about other countries that I could never visit myself.”
Advocating for change
UNICEF is working to keep children in school, with a particular focus on adolescent girls. We are advocating with the Government to address class sizes and teacher shortages by increasing the rural teachers’ allowance in hard to reach areas. UNICEF is also calling for free basic education to be extended by at least two years, and for full implementation of national school standards, including identifying and working with the families of vulnerable children to prevent school dropout.
“Malawi is a developing country and over half the population are children, so they are the future of this country” UNICEF Chief of Education Kimanzi Muthengi says. “If they are well educated, this offers tremendous hope to lift millions of Malawians out of poverty. But if we fail this generation, the cycle of poverty will continue and worsen.”
“What we see in Kampini School is a great example of an integrated approach to preventing school dropout,” Kimanzi continues. “On my recent visit to the school, I noted that while cases of teenage pregnancies had not been completely eradicated, the performance of girls in the national exam had significantly improved and was better than the boys, unlike in other years.”
The school’s approach is clearly working. In 2016/17 there were only 23 drop outs, compared to 41 in 2015/16 and 64 in 2014/15. As well as the Mother Group, Headmaster Mabwera also credits this to the UN Joint Programme on Girls Education (JPGE), supported by the Government of Norway.
“The JPGE has helped make the school more child friendly, he says. “The World Food Programme provides us with free school meals, and UNICEF has supplied chairs, desks, and sports equipment. We have abolished corporal punishment and improved the sanitation facilities. This makes the learners more likely to stay in school.”
The success of the Mother Group depends on the commitment of women like Rosie. There are groups throughout Malawi, but some are much more active than others.
Rosie’s business is selling sweet potatoes along the side of the main M1 road from Lilongwe to Blantyre, where she lives. She describes the road as a “goldmine” for local villages, although it can also lead to children dropping out of school to work. Rosie’s husband passed away many years ago. She has three grown up children, and two grandchildren, Cecilia and Vincent, who have lived with her since their mother passed away.
Rosie has put all her children through school, and her grandchildren are both in secondary school, although she is struggling to pay school fees for Cecilia. Her son Gerrard has become a successful Super League football player. “I always regret that I didn’t go far with school,” Rosie says. “That’s why I want my children and grandchildren to complete school. I want them to have a different life to me.”
Rosie is often involved in community activities, which is why she was nominated by her village for the Mother Group. She also helps to clear roads during rainy season and takes part in another group working to end domestic violence. It is remarkable to see a woman who herself struggles to make ends meet, give so much of her time and money to the community.
For children like Hawa, the dedication of the Kampini School Mother Group is giving them a second chance for education, while also helping to realise Rosie’s vision of Dedza as an area that is known for successful young professionals, rather than illiteracy and unemployment.
“I feel very happy when I get children back to school,” Rosie says. “One day they will be teachers and nurses, and they will be able to help me and my family. Even if they end up selling vegetables by the roadside, they can still negotiate a better price by speaking English.”