In September 2020 Anne Malengenya from M’biza Village, Traditional Authority Chikumbu in Mulanje District, became pregnant. She was in Standard Seven at Satemwa Primary School.
The condition forced the 15-year-old to drop out of school.
To add salt to injury, the man who was responsible for the pregnancy rejected her. He told her he was not interested in taking care of the pregnancy.
“With the help of other community members, we tried to reason with him to consider supporting me, but he refused,” she says.
Malengenya resigned to fate and decided to move on with her life.
But in the night of her despair shone a light of hope. Satemwa Mother Group visited her a week before schools reopened on September 7 2020 after they were closed in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“They encouraged me to go back to school despite my condition. They said I could still attend classes as I was one month pregnant,” she recalls.
On September 7 2020, Malengenya was among two other girls who reported back to school while pregnant.
Her two schoolmates sat for the 2020 Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PSLCE) examinations in October.
The three learners, along with many others who dropped out of school in the district due to poverty, orphanhood, teenage pregnancies and early marriages, owe it to Malawi Girl Guides Association (Magga) who are implementing an Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW) Project in the district.
The project, that seeks to share awareness on HIV and Aids issues among girls and young women, also encourages girls to remain in school and motivate those who left school to go back.
Satemwa Mother Group chairperson Catherine Bandawe says they encouraged Malengenya and other girls who dropped out to return to school.
“We met her parents and convinced them that their daughter could go back to school,” she explains.
Bandawe says Magga mentored them on how to help girls who had dropped out of school or facing abuse in their communities.
“Magga empowered us in a number of ways. We now know how to approach parents and guardians who refuse to help their children with school learning materials,” she explains.
Malengenya is not alone. There are several girls who dropped out in the district, but have returned to school, courtesy of Magga’s AGYW Project. The girls such as Brenda Gwembele, Monica Mbawa, Priscilla Rita and Funny Chizi from Mitawa, Mulanje Mission, Pasani and Chikonde primary schools, share the same fate.
Yet, these girls personify the situation in the country where girls drop out of school due to a number of factors.
According to a 2018/19 Ministry of Education Report, there were 5 187 634 learners in primary school in 2017/18 academic year. From this figure, 2 622 290 were girls and 8 391 dropped out due to various reasons.
Since 2017, with support from Christian Aid, Magga has been implementing AGYW Project through clubs in schools in the district.
Pasani Primary School Mother Group chairperson Harriet Simbi says girls and young women have benefitted from the project in a number of ways.
“Through mother groups, girls have started working hard in school,” she says.
Besides mother groups, Magga also trained school management committees that look into the welfare of children in schools.
Chikonde Primary School Management Committee chairperson Kesten Chimala says they help needy learners with school learning materials.
“We discussed with school management on the possibility of using some money from the school improvement grant (SIG),” he says.
On supporting needy learners, Mapanga School Management Committee in Mulanje South helped 13 girls with learning materials in 2018.
However, instead of getting money from SIG, the committee chairperson Rabecca Motila says they contributed money to help the needy girls remain.
Mapanga Primary School head teacher Enock Macheso says more readmitted girls are now able to complete school due to the support rendered by mother groups and school management committees.
Yet, Magga also engaged parents and teachers’ association (PTA) to ensure the girl-child gets education.
Mulanje Mission Primary School PTA vice-chairperson Martin Chimwala says they engage their fellow parents on the need to send back girls to school who dropped out due to pregnancies or marriages.
“As middle-people between parents and teachers, we also address the grievances that teachers have at a school. With this kind of working relationship, we end up creating a good place for our children to learn,” he says.
Commenting on the project, Magga national coordinator Mphatso Balua Jim says they are implementing the AGYW with other non-governmental organisations such as YouthNet and Counselling and Christian Aid.
She says they engaged girls and young women in HIV and Aids issues as well as implementing interventions in gender-based violence.
“Through the AGYW Project, we have trained 3 194 PTA and SMC members, established 188 clubs where 52 631 girls participate and established 188 mother groups,” says Jimu.
However, convincing readmitted girls to stay in school is not easy as most of them feel that they are not welcome by their teachers and fellow students.
That is why head teachers such Bitoni Mayere of Satemwa Primary School, advises the girls to shut their ears from what other learners talk about them.
“We advise the girls to just concentrate on their studies. However, we also warn other learners against bullying the readmitted girls,” he says.
His counterpart at Pasani Primary School Wilford Iron says he advises teachers to treat the readmitted girls the same way they treat other learners.
“Sometimes readmitted girls dropout again due to poor reception; to avoid that, teachers and other learners are asked to accommodate the girls without casting doubts into their efforts,” he explains.
Mitawa Primary School head teacher Fryson Chawinga says AGYW project has helped to reduce dropout among girls at the school.
He explains that in 2018/19 academic year, 18 girls dropped out while in 2019/20 academic year, 15 dropped out.
“However, if it were not for the holiday between March and September 2020 that came due to Covid-19, there would a small number of dropouts,” says Chawinga.
The story is the same for Mulanje Mission Primary School which also has recorded a decline in school dropout among girls.
Mulanje Mission Primary School deputy head teacher Martha Khulani said in 2019 10 girls dropped out of school while in 2020 eight girls left.
“Thanks to mother groups and school management committees, the girls now know the importance of remaining in school,” she explains.
On his part, Pasani Primary School head teacher Wilfred Iron says 54 girls dropped out in 2017 and 38 dropped out in 2018 while in 2019, 34 left school.
“The decline in school dropout rate is attributed to efforts from different stakeholders, including PTAs, mother groups, SMCs and teachers who were mentored by Magga,” he says.
Mulanje District director of education, youths and sports Enock Chumachawo admits that the AGYW Project has helped to reduce dropout among girls in the district.
He says in 2017/18 academic year, 4 461 girls dropped out while in 2018/19 academic year 4 168 girls dropped out.
“This shows that the AGWY project with other interventions, have motivated girls to remain in schools,” he says.
Improved girls’ performance
Due to girls’ motivation through the AGYW project, their performance has improved in the past two years.
At Mitawa Primary School, 204 candidates sat for the 2018 PSLCE examinations and 30 girls were selected to various secondary schools. In 2019, 358 sat for PSLCE examinations and 40 girls were selected to various secondary schools.
At Satemwa Primary School, 45 girls passed the PSLCE examinations in 2018 while 64 girls passed in 2019.
Achieving and sustaining gender parity in primary school has been a long term policy.
Since independence in 1964, Malawi Government with development partners, the private sector and civil society organisations, has deployed policies and strategies to promote gender parity in primary school education culminating in the declaration of free primary education in 1994.
Over the years, Malawi has adopted policies such as school fees waivers for non-repeating girls; readmission after pregnancy, gender appropriate curriculum and others.
However, education expert Roy Hauya argues that readmission policy is the most radical of the policies as it gives girls second chance.
Collaborating with other partners
For the AGYW project to succeed, Magga works in partnership with other stakeholders such as the police and the social welfare department.
Mulanje Police Station community policing coordinator Nyson Chibondo says they receive about 30 complaints on abuse of girls every month.
“Defilement and rape cases are rampant in the district, but with the collaboration with Magga and other partners, we are able to sensitise community members to such evils,” he says.
Chibondo says abuse on girls has the potential to discourage them from attending school.
“That is why we work so hard to address the vice to enable girls to continue with their educations,” explains Chibondo.
On her part, Mulanje District Social Welfare officer Martha Mkisi said girls in the district face challenges ranging from early marriages to child labour.
“These challenges affect girls’ education. So, we engage different stakeholders to end child marriages and child labour,” she says.
With the collaboration of different stakeholders, Magga has motivated girls to go back to school, even when they are pregnant.