Gertrude Fraser’s future looks bleak. Although she is an exceptional pupil, the 13-year-old runs the risk of getting into an early marriage if there are no well-wishers to bail her out.
Over the past academic years, Gertrude has been taking position one in her class at Namatete LEA Primary School in Blantyre.
Her teacher, Martha Mfulusa, confirms that the girl’s performance is extraordinary.
“She has always been number one. Her grades have always been far ahead of her classmates. She is a star performer,” says Mfulusa.
But on Friday, December 12 2014, when her school closed for the festive holiday, her fellow pupils and other staff at the school were shocked to find that Gertrude’s grades had gone down. The 13-year-old had taken position 21 out of 125 pupils in her Standard 6A.
Worse still, that day, Gertrude was not at school to get her school report. According to her friends and neighbours, she had been sent to her home village the day before by her aunt, Patricia Kaliati (not the minister), who wanted the girl to get married.
Mfulusa says Gertrude had told her several weeks earlier of her aunt’s intentions to marry her off to a man in the village..
“One day she came to me, crying,” says Mfulusa. “She told me her aunt had told her that she will send her to the village to get married once schools close for Christmas. She told me that although she loves school, it was sad she was being forced to drop out just like her sister, who was forced to marry at the age of 15.”
Her sister, now aged 18, has one child and lives with her husband in Lunzu.
According to Mfulusa, the girl had been complaining to her about the hardships she was facing at home.
“She told me she did not want to get married. To get clothes, she had to do piecework. She told me I should look for an orphanage where she could live as she continued with her education,” she added.
Kaliati’s home is perched on a hill in Chirimba. It overlooks the township and other surrounding hills. The house is plastered and has a corrugated iron-sheets roof. On that roof is a Zuku TV satellite dish.
Together with her husband, she sells construction poles in Chirimba, along the M1 Road. The mother of five agrees that Gertrude is an intelligent girl.
“Her performance in class is excellent. We are surprised that this term she did not perform well,” says Kaliati.
Then why did she tell her to go and get married?
She looks at her husband, then says: “I didn’t chase her to get married. She went to the village to see her brother who is sick.”
On Sunday, December 14. Gertrude was back in Blantyre from her Pitala Village in T/A Chanthunya’s area in Balaka, where her grandmother lives. She had come to attend a girls’ conference organised by the Girls’ Empowerment Network (Genet) at MPC Conference Centre.
She said she was eager to attend the conference, which brought together girls from various primary schools in Blantyre, to hear inspirational stories from young women who, against all odds, pursued their education.
Shyly, she said: “I want to be an engineer. I love the sciences because I love discovering new things.”
But when she started narrating her story, tears started flowing from her eyes. She does not remember when her parents died as she was too young.
She says life at home has been unbearable. Too much work in the morning has made her report late for classes sometimes. Sometimes, she has to sleep early and forgo study. At times, she has to do piecework to find money to buy clothes.
“I get K500 a day carrying bricks and sand for people who have building projects. Sometimes, I have been absent from school to get money,” says Gertrude.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines, in part, child labour as work done by children that deprives them of education, which includes obliging them to leave school prematurely or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.
Touched by Gertrude’s predicament, head-teacher Audro M’manga wants to let the girl live in his house to continue with her education.
“I have discussed it with my wife and she has agreed to it. I want to seek consent from Gertrude’s grandmother who is in Chileka and her sister in Lunzu. The girl’s future should not be doomed just like that,” says M’manga.
According to chairperson for Namatete School Management Committee, Lameck Gombwa, Gertrude is one of the girls facing untold challenges at the school.
Genet’s Learn Without Fear project coordinator Mercy Mituka said the organisation will fight tooth and nail to keep girls like Gertrude in school.
“There are many girls like her that face abuse. Poverty forces some parents to give their children in marriage. But that makes the cycle of poverty continue.”
Recently, Gender Minister Patricia Kaliati encouraged chiefs to establish by-laws, imposing fines on parents or guardians who force their children to marry before they complete their education.
She keeps her fingers crossed that parliamentarians will pass the new Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill when the august House reconvenes in January next year. Among other things, the legislation will make it illegal for girls aged 18 and below to get married.
But if what Education Ministry acting public relations officer Manfred Ndovi says is anything to go by, girls like Gertrude may find themselves at risk of dropping out of school before reaching secondary school if the increasing trend of primary school girls continues..
Citing the National Girls’ Education and Communication Strategy released in January this year, Ndovi says in 2012, 10 percent of girls dropped out of primary school, compared to 8.2 percent for boys. The national drop-out rate was pegged at 12 percent.
In 2013, 12 percent of girls compared to 9.5 percent of boys dropped out of primary school. The national primary school drop-out rate was at 10.8 percent.
“In November, we launched the Education Sector Implementation Plan II where we target that the dropout rate among girls goes down to five percent. That is doubtful, due to increasing early pregnancies and early marriages,” said Ndovi. n