When Lucia Burton sat Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PSLCE) examinations at Makande Primary School in Balaka last year, she was geared to go to secondary school.
However, the 16-year-old, from the Sub-Traditional Authority Nyanyala in the district, had to repeat Standard Eight despite passing the national examinations.
“When results came out, I had just achieved a pass; I wasn’t selected to any government secondary school. Unfortunately, my parents couldn’t afford fees for the nearest private secondary schools in my area,” she says.
Lucia’s parents had just separated when she got her PLSCE results.
Following the parting, her father instantly stopped supporting the schoolgirl and her siblings, so going to a private secondary school was a far-fetched dream for her.
“After pondering my situation, I decided not to quit school because my father was failing to fulfil his obligation. I repeated Standard Eight,” she says.
In September, Lucia was among 303 000 Standard Eight candidates who sat this year’s PSCLE examinations nationwide.
The adolescent girl hopes to get selected to a national secondary school which is more affordable than private secondary school.
She hopes it will be easier to get a bursary while at a public school.
Neglect by parents and guardians is just one of the setbacks faced by children, particularly girls determined to remain in school until their dreams come true. It makes it hard for girls to resist illegal and abusive sexual relationships fuelling child marriages, teen pregnancies, school dropout rates and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
According to the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, half of Malawian women marry before the 18th birthday, the minimum marriageable age. The nationwide survey conducted every five years also found about a third of adolescent girls pregnant five years ago. This erodes their chances to remain in school and earn more later in life.
Oftentimes, Lucia and her friends shrug off lusty advances from men who promise them money and material support in exchange for sex.
She explains: “Some girls fall into this trap. However, my friends and I know the importance of saying ‘no, thanks’ to sexual advances.
“We have formed a group called star circle where we discuss school work as well as the importance of learning and dangers of sexual transactions which can ruin our future.” she says.
The star circle, established last December, also gives Lucia and her friends a safe space to share vital skills such as knitting and hair-plaiting.
The young knitters fashion various wear for sale in their village while the hair artists run salons in their homes. The proceeds of these activities are shared equally among the needy girls, aiding them to buy basics such as notebooks, pens, soap and lotion.
“We want to fetch for ourselves things girls of our age normally seek from boys or older men,” says Lucia.
Oxfam in Malawi and its partners at Women’s Legal Resource Centre (Wolrec) are championing the star circle approach with funding from UN Women through the UN Trust. The three-year project seeks to reduce violence against women and girls in Balaka and Nsanje.
Wolrec executive director Maggie Kathewera-Banda says the two districts have low girls’ participation in education.
She explains: “The study we conducted before embarking on the project also indicated a high rate of gender-based violence in these two districts.
“So, the project seeks to improve communities’ knowledge and respect of girls’ rights while encouraging the girls to stay in school and protecting them from any form of violence,” she says.
Oxfam in Malawi country director Lingalireni Mihowa says Malawi is making positive strides towards eliminating violence against women and girls, but the pace is faster in changing laws than behavioural change”.
“The laws are progressive in terms of protecting women and girls against violence. But it is the human behaviour that has not reached the extent we need,” she says.
Mihowa urges government agencies and non-governmental organisations opposed to violence against women and girls to sustain their work to change this.
“We need to interrogate the social and cultural norms driving violence against women and girls in the country to uproot them,” says Mihowa.