Education is not just for those that follow the formal schooling system. The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), through the United Nations (UN) Joint Programme on Girls Education (Unjpge), is giving adolescent girls a second opportunity to go to school.
Zainab Hassan, 19, will forever bless the day she learnt about the programme in her home village of Balakasi, Traditional Authority Makanjira in Mangochi.
She says: “I had dropped out of school while in Standard Two. I wanted to start doing business and earn something for myself, but I did not know how to read or count money.”
Hassan is one of many females in Malawi who are illiterate. According to the 2016 Unesco Institute for Statistics, an average 65.75 percent of the adult population (aged 15 and above) in Malawi are able to read and write. For adult men, the literacy rate is at 73 percent and that for women is 59 percent.
Thus, a whopping 41 percent of the female population has no literacy skills, one of the reasons behind Unjpge that targets mainly girls.
Hassan, a fifth born in a family of seven, lost her father when she was only 10. Her mother struggled to support her seven children on her own, forcing Zainab to drop out of school.
A new hope in her life dawned after a friend introduced her to the programme. She did not hesitate to register for the next intake.
The nine-month programme targets girls aged between 10 and 19, who did not have the opportunity to read the alphabet for various reasons, to equip them with reading, numeracy and life skills.
“So far, I have done four months and I have already gained basic reading and writing skills. I hope to start a business upon completion. It is a very good programme and I feel lucky that I managed to enroll,” she enthuses.
According to Clemencia Bande, who is coordinating the initiative in Salima, Dedza and Mangochi districts, since the programme launched in 2015, it has enrolled more learners than the recommended 30 recruits per intake.
“Demand is high for education among adolescent girls who failed to attend the formal schooling system for one reason or the other. We always exceed the recommended number on enrolment,” she says.
But Bande says, with time, some of the girls have challenges attending classes consistently, particularly those that are married.
“Sometimes their husbands tell them not to come to class or stop altogether, but we still end up with more than 30 learners per class,” she explains.
She is right. Even Hassan has been married for two months now, although she vows not to allow marriage stand in the way of her dream to attain economic freedom.
Bande says the Unjpge programme has benefited over 3 000 young girls in the three districts it is being implemented.
According to her, some beneficiaries have gone on to enrol in primary school after completing the nine-month programme, while others have started small businesses or village savings and loan schemes with funding from the project.
At Masongola Teacher Development Centre, where Hassan goes, three beneficiaries have enrolled in primary school this year alone.
“The head teachers assess their level of competence to determine which class they can proceed to. Otherwise, we also provide capital for the older ones who simply want to start businesses,” Bande said.
In her remarks, Unicef communications officer Rebecca Phwitiko said the programme seeks to improve girls’ education.
“In the first phase, we targeted 81 primary schools and in the second phase, we do not know yet how many schools will benefit,” she said.
Phwitiko said Unicef has partnered government, mother groups, traditional leaders and various non-governmental organisations to implement the project which is being funded by the Norwegian Government.
According to Unicef, besides providing literacy and numeracy skills, the programme also seeks to eliminate multiple threats to girls’ schooling which include poor food and nutrition, poor quality schooling, cultural practices that perpetuate gender inequalities and violation of girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights, among others.
Phase two of the programme is set to start this November in 81 centres across the three districts.
As for Hassan, she is only five months away from realising her dream of becoming not only literate, but also attaining economic freedom by owning a small business. n