Keeping girls in school has become a global agenda.
Yet stories abound in the country of initiation ceremonies forcing girls to miss class.
Mangochi, on the shores of Lake Malawi, is one of the hotspots for chinamwali, a rite of passage to adulthood which forces girls as young as six to be absent from school.
The cultural practice among the Yao, credited with inculcating morals in girls transitioning to adulthood, sometimes runs for a month.
Its timing has been a minefield of conflict between culture warriors and educationists.
Realising the importance of education, some communities are modifying the practice to suit children’s educational needs.
Tradition Authority (T/A) Chowe is one of the chiefs ensuring that initiation ceremonies do not clash with the academic calendar.
“I have told all village heads that no initiation camp should be conducted during school days,” says Chowe.
Last year, some village heads were fined K140 000 for disobeying the order.
The penalty demonstrated his determination to ensure every boy and girl learns.
The chief used the money to buy learning materials for girls in poverty.
“This does not mean I undermine my culture,” he says. “Initiation rites are also a form of education. They teach boys and girls how to conduct themselves in adulthood. But I have a problem when cultural ceremonies interrupt school activities.”
His stance may be facing pockets of resistance, but Chowe says he will not relent.
Recently, he suspended village head Taliya for confining children in initiation camps before the close of the term.
“He rushed. The children were still going to school,” he explains, thanking Mangochi district commissioner (DC)for granting his wish.
This has sent ripples of fear among traditional leaders who are indifferent to children’s rights.
Chowe is not the lone soldier in the push to safeguard pupils in the remote area and ensure more and more remain in school and going to university.
Senior Chief Nankumba has also joined in.
Recently, he dismissed two defiant village heads.
“The rule is simple: no initiation ceremonies during school period. I always remind village heads to conduct initiation camps when schools are on recess,” says the chief.
Now that schools have closed, initiation ceremonies are in session.
But the counsellors are required to wind up and torch initiation shrines a week before schools open.
“This will offer children time to rest before returning to school,” Nankumba says.
Initiation ceremonies are also blamed for fuelling teen pregnancies and child marriages as girls hasten to venture in sexual affairs to try out tips on how to please men.
The scenarios contribute to high school dropout rates in the Eastern Region. Official figures show almost 14 000 pupils in Mangochi—a population equivalent to enrolment of 14 schools—dropped out of school in 2013.
Some community leaders have ordered angaliba (counsellors) to tone down on giving children explicit sexual pep talk.
“We are conducting meetings to eliminate any forms of teachings and practices that may end up motivating the children to engage in risky sexual affairs,” says Nankumba.
DC Moses Chimphepo recounts worrying trend he encountered at a primary school in T/A Chimwala.
“I was shocked to find that standard one class had about 200 pupils while standard eight had only 40 pupils. Where did the rest go?” he asks.
He calls for coordinated efforts, including religious and traditional leaders, to safeguard girls’ right to education.
Says the DC: “We need committed leaders to influence change in people’s mindset. Societies with high drop-out rates should begin to see the need for their children to attain education.”