Hope for girls: how the UN is working to keep girls in school

Issa Alfred Saidi; a champion for girls’ education
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Chagara

By Rebecca Phwitiko, UNICEF Malawi

Issa Alfred Saidi’s job often takes him beyond his head teacher office at Nampinjuja Primary School in Mangochi, Malawi. He is quite often found making house calls, visiting learners who are absent from school or appear to be facing some problems. Issa is a man who commands great respect in the school and surrounding community. He is also a cheerful man and is a favorite among his students, with whom he is often found laughing with.

They nicknamed him soldier, a man who doesn’t relent in fighting for all children to stay in school. He marches around the villages, engaging with parents and chiefs about the particular importance of girls’ education.


The plight of girls

There are many factors conspiring to force girls out of school in rural Malawi. Poverty tends to present marriage as a better alternative to education and give girls and their parents false hope of a brighter future.

“Culturally, marriage is seen as an achievement for the girl,” explains Issa. An unwed girl eventually brings some embarrassment to the family so even without the promise of a better life, girls will be married off at a very young age.

Girls’ enrollment is high in the lower classes. As they progress through primary school, the risk of dropping out increases significantly. Issa believes it his job and that of local leaders and parents to keep a close eye on the girls and encourage them to stay in school.

“It starts with missing a day then two days of school and before you know it someone has dropped out of school. If a girl is absent from school for more than a few days, we find out why,” he explains.

Changing the narrative

Issa has been teaching since 1990. He says there is a lot that has changed since then. “As head teacher I am now able to protect children in my school. We have been trained to run a child friendly school, where students are able to seek help from teachers and local committees,” explains Issa.

There is a new set up in school; learner’s councils now give learners a platform to participate in school management. “When we decide on school rules it is not just teachers sitting down to determine what the law is. We discuss with the learner’s council, chiefs and parents,” says Issa.

Parents, who previously arranged their daughter’s marriages prematurely or looked the other way when girls dropped out of school have now started to act. Through village committees such as the mother group, child protection committees and by-laws championed by chiefs, there is stronger support for girls’ education and swift action to bring girls back to school.

Mother group sessions provide a platform for girls to talk about their challenges and get  support
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Chikondi

Girls like Zione Majidu, who dropped out of school now have the chance to learn to read and write, to catch up with their peers and eventually return to regular school. When she was just 10 years old Zione dropped out of school to help her parents with household chores, farming and piecework. At 14 she got married, had a baby 2 years later and then left her abusive husband when her daughter was just a year old.

When she heard that there was a special school enrolling girls who had dropped out she saw this as her chance to start over.

Zione is now 20, in standard 7 at Nampinjuja Primary school. She says her head teacher Issa Saidi is her favorite teacher. “He has always encouraged me and the other girls to do better and be active in school activities,” says Zione. She now chairs the learners’ council at her school and for the entire district.

Zione is back in school, thanks to the UN Joint Programme for Girls’ Education
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Chagara

The learner’s council, child friendly school practices and second chance education for girls are some of the initiatives implemented by UNICEF and its partners under the UN Joint Programme for Girls’ Education. With funding from the Norwegian Government, UNICEF and two other UN agencies; WFP and UNFPA, are bringing a range of interventions tailored to address the challenges that girls face.

The UNJPGE is a holistic, human rights based programme aimed at improving access, quality and relevance of education for girls in Salima, Mangochi and Dedza districts. Parents, mother groups and teachers like Issa, have been trained in life skills and gender responsive methods.

“The programme engages girls themselves, boys, parents, teachers and local leaders, nurturing a community that promotes girls’ education,” says UNICEF Malawi Chief of Education Kimanzi Muthengi.


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