Agnes Kasapila, a 16-year-old mother of two, married at the age of 14 when she was in Form One.
“I married early to escape poverty because my parents couldn’t provide school fees and other educational needs,” she says.
According to the Demographic and Health Survey of 2015, 42 percent of women in Malawi marry before their 18th birthday and 12 percent before reaching 15.
Being the first born child, she had to help her mother look after her two siblings and ailing father. They used to do piecework but seldom earned enough to feed the family.
However, Agnes fled extreme poverty and domestic violence. She returned to her parents’ home with two children.
“My husband and I struggled to feed the two children and he used to beat me for no reason,” she says.
Back home in Chipuliro Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Zulu, in Mchinji, the teen mother returned to school in 2019 to change her story. She received support and encouragement from members of a mother group under the Sustainable Participatory Initiative for Secondary Education (Spises) project by Foundation for Irrigation and Sustainable Development (Fisd) with funding from European Union.
“Enough was enough. It was time to get back on my feet and pursue my dream to become a nurse,” she explains.
To keep girls in school, the concerned mothers offer young girls pep talk on the importance of education and ills of marrying young. They also withdraw girls aged below 18 from illicit marriages and encourage them to return to school.
Bertha Damiano, one of the volunteers, says: “We approached Agnes and her parents. Luckily, she was already on the verge of going back to school.
“We helped her to re-enrol and gave her guidance so she doesn’t slip again.”
Agnes recieved a bursary after rigorous assessments of her needs when she re-enrolled in Form One at Chimteka Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in the western border district, where she is in Form Three.
“I am rewriting my story, so I work hard to lift my family out of poverty. I don’t want to mess up again. I have children and I want to secure their future,” Agnes says.
Spises project coordinator Gomezgani Shaba says through the initiative CDSSs have acquired the capacity to sustain the bursary scheme by embracing irrigation farming and associated income-generating activities.
He says the project has the potential to meet the financial requirements of at least 141 vulnerable students per school every year if utilised.
“The project resulted in a 52 percent increase the number of vulnerable students accessing financial support and it has reduced the rate of school dropouts in the targeted schools,” Shaba explains.
Spises project has reached out to about 7400 students and 5100 of them are girls who received bursaries and social support as well as reusable sanitary pads.
Chimteka CDSS currently provides bursaries to 27 needy students through the proceeds of irrigation activities on a 2.5 acre rice field where they are expecting to harvest 90 bags.
Child rights activist Fred Nyondo applauds the initiative that seeks to ensure every child learns.
“Communities surrounding the target need to participate in the implementation of such projects and own the initiatives happening in their area to make the gains sustainable and reap maximum benefits,” he says.