By Johannes Wedenig, UNICEF Representative in Malawi
and Honorable Goitseone Nanikie Nkwe, Chairperson of ACERWC
Today, Saturday 16 June, countries across the African continent are celebrating the Day of the African Child. This commemoration was put in place by the African Union (AU) almost two decades ago, and has gone from strength to strength. This year, Malawi is hosting the celebrations. As a country where children account for over half the population, this is both timely and welcome.
With a booming youth population, it is essential to ensure that Malawi’s children participate in development processes and are given a chance for bright future. This year’s theme is ensuring that ‘No Child is Left Behind’. In leaving no child behind, we have to ensure that every child has access to quality education. Malawi is one of 45 African countries to have ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which highlights the fact that every child has the right to an education. Education is the foundation of both individuals’ and the country’s development.
We believe that all children, including the three-year-old toddler in rural Malawi, should be enrolled in some form of early childhood development to aid their cognitive and social development. This gives them an opportunity to acquire the skills they need to cope with primary school, and a better chance of completing school.
In Malawi, children are supposed to enrol in primary school at six years old. However, some children do not enrol in school at all, for reasons ranging from the long distances they have to walk to school, lack of encouragement from their parents due to high illiteracy levels, inadequate school infrastructure and lack of resources such as textbooks and desks. Other children enrol in primary school at a much later age, then drop out of school before acquiring basic numeracy and literacy skills. The dropout rate for girls is especially high, at 58 percent, largely due to poverty, teenage pregnancy, and child marriages.
Even for those children who complete primary school, there are barriers to secondary education, including financial – school fees, transport costs, accommodation – and high competition for limited places. The transition rate from primary to secondary school is around 35 percent. As a result, there are currently 5 million children in primary school in Malawi but only 400,000 in secondary. This is leaving far too many children behind.
The African Union has produced a Continental Education Strategy for Africa, which sets ambitious goals for Africa, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. It envisions the type of education and training systems that need to be in place to lift families out of extreme poverty and to enhance prosperity, stability and peace on the continent.
The AU’s long term agenda for children is known as Agenda 2040. This recommends that all African countries eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure girls have equal access to all levels of education. It reaffirms that States should reach out to disadvantaged and socially-excluded groups in rural areas, and that children with disabilities, indigenous children and children of ethnic and religious minorities should not be left behind.
In Malawi, one way to address these challenges is through creating child-friendly schools. These schools have safe and inclusive learning environments, adequate latrines that are suitable for girls, safe water, and child-centred teaching, including innovative digital learning.
It is also important to ensure that children who graduate from primary are able to transition to secondary school. UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to increase access to secondary education by scaling up double shifting, open and distance learning in secondary schools. For example, Open Day secondary schools enable students who either did not secure a place at secondary school, or were unable to afford one, to attend lessons at a school in their area.
In Malawi, the risks of dropping out of school are higher for girls, 47 percent of whom end up in child marriages. This is one of the highest rates in sub-Saharan Africa, and endangers adolescent girls’ health and future prospects. In light of this, UNICEF is supporting the Government to establish a National Girls Trust Fund, which will ensure coordinated funding for girls’ scholarships across the country.
All of these proposals of course have financial implications. A recent budget analysis conducted by UNICEF found that although the total education sector budget has increased in recent years, allocations remain insufficient. There are also challenges with the way funds are allocated within the sector and inefficiencies in spending. The vast majority of education budgets are spent on salaries and wages, leaving very little for essential supplies such as books and other teaching and learning materials. UNICEF is calling on the Government to increase and improve the quality of spending on all levels of education.
As we commemorate the Day of the African Child 2018, let us remember the importance of empowering children by educating them. Providing every child with a chance for education is an opportunity to overcome poverty and advance their health and wellbeing. With an education, girls and boys are in a better position to reach their full potential. UNICEF and the African Union are dedicated to contributing to quality education for every child. Together we can ensure that we leave no child behind.