Lucy Jamison, the Nkhotakota girl we told her story on Tuesday, had every setback in her way to turn her into a statistic.
Today, she could have been among seven in 10 girls who get pregnant before they turn 15.
In fact, she could have been like her peers who, at 22, are already burdened with four children and still expecting even more.
By evading such setbacks, Lucy, today, has turned into an agent of reducing population growth and poverty.
At 30, she will likely only have two children. Her children, even when she gets divorced, will likely access better education and good health; and the children, given the fact that both poverty and progress are contagious, would surely travel their mother’s way.
Her family, with just two children, will possibly remain small—something that will help her to invest some of her earnings in other productive sectors.
Surely, Lucy’s story underlines what the 2012 Because I am a Girl-Africa Report underline that educating girls is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and improving the lives of girls, boys and everyone in their communities.
“In addition to being an intrinsic human right, research has consistently demonstrated that education, particularly girls’ education, is one of the most effective means of development, not only for girls themselves, but for their families, communities and wider society,” reads the report.
It adds that educating girls improves maternal health, reduces child mortality, raises levels of household nutrition, and increases the potential workforce and opportunities for economic growth.
It then recommends that tackling barriers to girls’ education is thus central to addressing the root causes of poverty.
It is not that Malawi, still marrying most of its girls before 18, does not understand that Lucy’s story—one well substantiated by the 2012 Because I am Africa Report—symbolises what it needs to break its cycle of poverty.
Since 1994, government has been trying to improve the situation with various interventions, measures and policies aimed at formalising its commitments to girls’ education under various international and regional frameworks.
They include the 1994 free primary education (FPE) and compulsory education as provided in the 2010 Education Act.
In some cases, girls’ education has been explicitly addressed in separate policies and interventions.
For instance, these include the 1995 Girls Attainment of Basic Education (Gable) and the recent Girls Re-admission Programme—one that helps girls to return to their schools after delivering.
Despite these government efforts that have seen countless projects and campaigns by countless non-governmental organisation (NGOs) aimed at getting girls educated, it is still cold outside for most girls.
For instance, generally, the 2013 Education Management Information System (EMIS) report showed that each year Malawi enrols over one million pupils in Standard One, but only over 50 000 proceed to secondary school each year.
As of 2013, Standard Eight completion rate, the EMIS shows, stood at 47 percent compared to 57 for boys.
The survival rates for standard Five and Eight, adds the EMIS, reveals that girls stand at 27 percent compared to boys at 35 percent.
This concurs with the 2013 World Bank figures which show that just 27 percent of Malawi’s girls enrol in secondary school, and still only 13 percent attend.
The World Bank adds that only a fraction of those that attend secondary school, 13 percent, actually finish four years of secondary school and just five percent nationally pass the Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations.
The question, then, is: despite all these countless interventions, what is it that the country needs to do more to get more girls in class, not in marriage?
Government and NGOs have a long list of issues they find as answers. But the girls who have been there and made it, too, have different answers, embedded in their stories, something they feel is barely considered.
“To get a girl educated, in the first place, one needs to understand the world around a girl child in Malawi,” says Memory Banda.
Memory’s life took a divergent path from her sister’s.
When her sister reached puberty, she was sent to a traditional “initiation camp” that teaches girls “how to sexually please a man.” She got pregnant there, aged 11. Memory, however, refused to go.
Instead, she organised others and asked her community’s leader to issue a bylaw that no girl should be forced to marry before turning 18.
Today her sister, at 21, has three children and, at 18, Memory is a second year Bachelor of Arts student at Chancellor College.
“All a girl thinks of, amidst poverty in the family she was brought in, is survival from the eyes of friends who are getting married and meeting their needs through their husbands. A girl has a limited look at the inner circle of the family,” adds Memory.
For a girl child to think education, she adds, it means moving away from the inner circle.
“Government alone cannot manage to get a girl out of this inner family. We need strong families, communities and societies to understand why a girl needs to be liberated and sent to school,” she says.
Government, notes Memory, needs to make schools less scary for girls.
“People believe sexual harassment is over due to increased awareness. It is not. Schools are supposed to be fun for girls. They are still not,” she says.
Beyond that Lucy feels parents need to take the primary role in educating girls.
“I am a product of parents that, after marrying off my two sisters, found that the burden of poverty they wanted to reduce was accelerating. My sisters were just being married off and, after giving birth, they were getting divorced—something that increased the burden of taking care of them at home.
“My parents realised that it is time they changed their ways. They insisted I stay and provided everything for my school,” explains Lucy who disagree that poverty fuels early marriages.
She says most parents can afford to buy their daughters notebooks, pens and uniforms.
The problem, she explains, is that most parents do not value girls’ education that is why they do not choose to invest in them.
“I think we need government to come in with strong measures against parents that marry off their daughters at an early age,” she says.
Currently, Lucy is the model of her village and she runs a Girls Club where she meets and discusses girls’ education with 52 girls in her community.
“Girls in my community have begun to understand. They are challenging their parents to maintain them in schools. I am seeing a revolution and in few years to come my community will change for the better,” she says.
Surely, Malawi needs to lock hands with girls like Lucy and Memory. n