Picture this. A class enrols 100 pupils in Standard One and six years later, half the class drops out due to teen pregnancies and child marriage.
It is then worse in Standard Eight as 13 pupils who sit the Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PSLCE) examinations, only two are girls.
This is the case at Changasi Primary School in Nkhata Bay South East. Mary, 17, is one of the several girls who dropped out three years ago. She got pregnant at the age of 14 and was forced into marriage.
“The marriage didn’t last long as the man divorced me a few months after delivery,” she says.
Mary remarried and now has two children. She, however, is afraid that the new husband might leave her again for another woman. She says the man left for Tanzania in search of greener pastures last February.
“I am told he found a job as a garden boy. But since he left, he has supported me once with K20 000,” she says.
Her sister Alice, 14, also faces almost the same predicament. She dropped out of school last year while in Standard Eight. She is now home raising a nine-month-old baby.
Yvonne Nyondo, a teacher at Changasi, says only two girls at the school sat for the 2018 PSLCE.
“We have an enrollment of over 100 pupils in Standard One, but numbers reduce in higher classes, more especially from Standard Six. For example, this year, we have 50 pupils in Standard Six, 25 in Standard Seven and less than 20 in Standard Eight. Most of these drop out due to pregnancies and child marriages,” she says.
Nyondo says absenteeism rate is also high as girls remain out of school for up to a week due to some cultural practices such as rite of passage.
“This is affecting the provision of quality education because more children are failing to understand the importance of education,” she says.
The scenario in Nkhata Bay confirms a study by the United Kingdom Research and Innovation which says Malawi registers a high enrolment rate at Standard One, but loses over half of the pupils by the end of Standard Six.
It is even worse by the end of Form Four, it says.
Nkhata Bay district youth officer Geoffrey Mwase says the district is experiencing a rise in premarital sexual activities which result in teen pregnancies and teen marriages.
Quoting the National Youth Policy, Mwase says half of the deliveries in the district’s hospitals are by the youth.
“This is a concern to us because it means the youth are prone to HIV infections as prevalence of HIV and Aids also shows that it is high among the youth,” he says.
Girls Empowerment Network (Genet) has since intervened with Marriage No Child’s Play Project, which is being implemented under a consortium of Genet, Youth Net Counselling (Yoneco) and Save the Children.
Genet project coordinator Lizzie Waya says lack of parental guidance for school-going children is the underlying factor for the increased pregnancies.
She says the end result is that children get information on issues of sexual and reproductive health from wrong sources.
“There are misconceptions on issues of sexual and reproductive health among youths,” she says. “For example, many young people think that family planning methods are for adults only.”
Waya says with support from Simavi, an international organisation, Genet is reaching out to the youth and parents with information on sexual and reproductive health.
“Young people are forced into marriage when they become pregnant. So, we are looking at preventive measures. And one of them is to give them the right information to make informed decisions.
“We are also establishing community parenting cycles or forums as avenues for parents to discuss child marriages and campaigns for girls to return to school,” she says.
Chairperson of the Nkhata Bay Chiefs Council, Senior Chief Mkumbira, who is also a member of the district council’s education committee, says they are worried that such cases are also rampant among girls under bursaries.
Mkumbira says there are indications that such cases are rampant because of the district’s lakeside location which exposes girls to a lot of visitors.
He says as chiefs they have put in place by-laws to address teen pregnancies, but he says implementation of these by-laws is a problem.
“Sometimes you find that the perpetrator or victims are related to the chief, so implementation becomes a challenge. But we need to be serious and implement these by-laws,” he says.
United States Ambassador Virginia Palmer says Malawi needs to prioritise girls’ education, saying this is the best investment for the country to improve its economy and public health status.
She says a 2016 report Evidence for the World’s Best Investment published in the US by the Brookings Institute listed positive outcomes associated with girls’ education which she said are also applicable in Malawi.
The outcomes include increased economic benefits for the family, community and country, improved maternal and infant health, smaller families, healthier, better educated children, reduced rates of HIV and Aids and malaria and greater family resilience to climate change and natural disasters.
“There is evidence that staying in school reduces a girl’s chances to contract HIV,” she says.
Minister of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) Bright Msaka says government increased education funding in the current budget to construct more schools and boarding facilities to protect girls while giving them the space to grow and learn. n