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Empowering young

MALAWI: Nearly 45 per cent of the population are children aged 10 to 19 years old, which is about four million girls

MY TRIP to Malawi early in 2013 was the second since African Child Trust
began working in the country in 2007.

African Child Trust (ACT) supports the education of disadvantaged children (mostly those who are orphaned or fatherless) and empowers needy widows in eight countries of Africa, including Malawi.

Kena Mphonda with Dr Kunle Onabolu and Abby Olufeyimi

The widows we support do not have the means to send their children to school. Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world according to the United Nations development index. Most families live on less than one US dollar per day.

With a population of about 18 million people, nearly 45 per cent are children aged 10 to 19 years old which is about four million girls.

In rural areas the challenges of educating them is compounded by the shortage of school places.

Children have to purchase their own school uniform and pay levies that poor parents cannot afford.

The dropout rate of girls in Malawi’s schools is high

Our work in Malawi is in the southern region, centred in the Mulanje and Phalombe districts in the south east.

At the time of my 2013 visit we had increased our support to 31 children having started with only six children with our partner, Goodnews Bible Church based in the Nyezerela community, which has a population of about 68,000.

I came to Malawi prepared to discuss providing support for a further 20 children. My schedule included meetings with our partners, beneficiaries and other stakeholders where we discussed the poor school performance of children we were supporting and the high drop-out rate from education that they were reporting to us.

The drop-out rate among girls in particular, even at primary school, was very concerning as it was the highest we had experienced in all the countries where we worked.

Between 2007 and 2013, 13 children had dropped out of school and nine of them were girls, either to get married or on becoming pregnant.

At the time Nyezerela Primary school had a pupil population of 2,440 of which 52 per cent were girls.

Children walk up to five miles from the surrounding villages to go there.

At the time, education, even in primary school, was not free and even with universal primary education it is still not affordable for the very poor, who account for 85 per cent of Malawi’s rural population.

There was one particularly sad story of 13-year-old girl Judith, an orphan living with her aunt.

We were told that she was taken ill suddenly and had to be taken to hospital where she was found to be HIV positive, but had exhibited no signs of being HIV positive until then.
Her situation remains a mystery to us, but at the time it was blamed on the negligence of her aunt and poor sanitary management in her home.

The aunt is HIV positive. I remembered Judith from my previous visit as vibrant and playful.

It was a shock to see her in such sorry state on this second trip.

I soon realised that the high drop out rate of girls in education, even at primary school, was not new and was acknowledged by the Malawi government as a serious national issue.

In Malawi, the education of girls is greatly impacted when they reach the age of menstruation.

Often, girls are forced to stay away from school during menstrual periods because of poor sanitation at school. There is the feeling of shame when clothes are stained due to lack of access to sanitary pads and lack of support from teachers, a majority of whom are male.

Missing a few days of school each month adds up and can affect school work and performance.

The sanitation is poor and there is a lack of menstrual health education for girls both at home and at school.

Girls lack access to sanitation products which are unaffordable; schools have insufficient toilets and most have no water.

There are also cultural myths, traditional rites and taboos surrounding menstruation, which are encouraged by female adults and can cause the young girls to be confused.

Added to this is the fact that poor and illiterate parents and elders see an economic advantage in marrying off the girls early to reduce the burden of their upkeep and in turn they receive a ‘dowry’ payment from the groom.

One in every five girls in Malawi fail to complete secondary school and the number dropping out in primary school is even higher and it is mainly related to menstruation.

A staggering 50 per cent of all girls are married or bearing children by the age of 18. These are the challenges facing young girls in Malawi that discourage them from continuing with their education.

ACT was formed 20 years ago with the goal of alleviating poverty in Africa by advancing the education of the disadvantaged children and orphans who otherwise will not have access due to lack of affordability.

It is why ACT is working in Malawi, because we recognise that poor children and particularly girls in rural society need help.

In the Chichewa language, ‘ulemu’ means dignity. Our Ulemu project is about dignity for girls.

This is our approach to reversing the issue of girls dropping out of education at a young age.

Our aim is that they are educated so that they can contribute to development in Malawi and alleviate poverty, particularly in rural areas.

In 2015 we carried out a pilot project to test a training programme that has been developed with our partners, described as a ‘girl shower’.

The programme teaches girls about menstrual health issues, hygiene, career planning and human rights among others.

The aim is to build the confidence of the girls, debunk some of the traditional myths and taboos and teach them about the importance of education.

At the end of the programme, each child is provided with a ‘blessing bag’, containing underwear and reusable sanitary pads, which we produced locally. These are items which the girls would not normally be able to access.

A second part of the project involves training women in the community, described as ‘mother groups’.

These are mothers, grandmothers and guardians who are influential with regards to the children remaining in school.

The women are trained in various life skills including hygiene, sanitation, health and HIV/Aids awareness, leadership and setting up a business. They are also trained to use a sewing machine and taught to make the underwear and reusable sanitary pads which are distributed to girls of menstrual age in the community.

The project provided a sewing machine, scissors, tools and materials for tailoring to be used for this purpose. The tools are kept in a centre for safe storage.

A schoolgirl reads aloud to her class

For a small rental fee, the women are able to use the sewing machine and tools for personal business and income generation, with funds raised then used to purchase additional sewing machines.

The pilot project involving 130 girls and 300 women was trialled in Khombwe and Namphungo and was a success.

Last October we started the roll-out of the project to the Nyezerela community targeting 1,400 girls aged 10-19 years old and 1,000 women and widows.

Our aim with this project is to motivate girls in Malawi to stay in education and go on
to higher education, reducing drop out rates from primary and secondary school and resulting in reduced early marriages and pre-marital child bearing.

We want to see increased numbers of girls in rural areas educated, which will improve the gender balance in the work force and drive development in Malawi.

One extra year of primary school boosts a girl’s future wage by 10 to 20 per cent and an extra year of secondary school increases the earning potential by 15 to 20 per cent.

We are expecting that the ‘mother groups’ will appreciate the value of education and the benefit it would bring to their daughters and also to their parents.

The project is already touching hearts and minds and changing attitudes. I was heartened listening to the representative of head chief, Nyzezerela at the stakeholder meeting to launch the project in November.

He told us that the lack of education is the reason for the backwardness that has hindered the development of his community and underpinned cultural attitudes, which had no sound historical basis.

The chief himself did not have the opportunity of an education, as schooling was the preserve of only ‘city people’ when he was growing up in the 1960s.

The girls, who participated in the pilot ‘girls shower’ at Namphungo and Khombwe, greatly enjoyed the programme and learnt a lot from it.

They use the jingles they learnt to remind themselves of the dos and don’ts which keep them from thoughts of dropping out of school.

Martha was in Form 1 when she attended the programme in 2015. She is now in Form 4 and will sit national exams to gain admission to university in June.

Martha hopes she will do well and be able to go to medical school and become a community doctor.

The nearest medical centre to her village in Namphungo is 20 miles away by foot.
Alinafe is in Standard 7 at Nyezerera Primary School and attended the ‘girls shower’ in November.

For her, the main impact of the programme is that she now understands that going to school will enable her to learn subjects that will help her have a better life and give her opportunities that can take her out of poverty.
She now desperately wants to learn.

The impact that the Ulemu Project can have on Malawi is huge. But it needs to continue to be rolled out across the southern region where the need appears to be greatest.

Rolling out the project at primary school level will enable the children to take on board the key messages by the time they move on to secondary school.

For the African Child Trust, the challenge is funding. It has been an enormous effort to raise funds to carry out the pilot projects and to obtain funds to commence the first roll-out.

Yet it is not an expensive project, particularly now that we have well trained staff and trainers who are keen to pass on their knowledge to the many communities at affordable costs.

This is a project that is life changing for individuals and can accelerate development in a country that very much needs it.

Dr Kunle Onabolu is the founder and director of the African Child Trust which set up the Ulemu project

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