Ethel Sonyezani Chavula, 16, dropped out of Balitse Primary School in Mchinji after falling pregnant for her fellow pupil, a 17-year-old boy. She went on to get married to him but the marriage did not work out due to many challenges.
“We could stay for days without eating anything because we were both not working to enable us to buy our basic needs. To top it all, my husband used to beat me whenever we had an argument,” she says.
Ethel decided to go back to her parents’ house where she later delivered a baby girl. However, after delivery, Balitse Primary School Mother Group encouraged her to go back to school and she accepted.
The mother group’s Chairperson Mwalisi Chawira says they decided to urge Ethel to go back to school because of how hard she worked before dropping out.
Later, Ethel passed her Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education examinations and was selected to Gandali Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in the district.
However, due to some challenges the family faced in 2015, Ethel did not go to the secondary school and is repeating Standard 8 but hopeful that she is going to pass and get selected again next year.
Ethel’s case is one of the interventions ActionAid Mchinji Local Rights Programme (LRP) has put in place to encourage girls education.
Apart from constructing school blocks and teachers’ houses, the ActionAid programme has trained mother groups and intensified girls’ interactive clubs in Mtapo, Khwere, Diti, Chilowa, Katonda and Mzenga primary schools to train girls and assist them in the challenges they face in school.
Tiwonge Nkhoma, a matron of Mtapo Girls’ Interactive Club, says their role is to encourage girls to work hard in school and avoid early marriage.
“As a matron of the interactive group in collaboration with mother groups, we act as counsellors to the girls.
“We have managed to encourage girls who dropped out of school to go back and, so far, the response of the girls to our interventions has been very encouraging,” she says.
Nkhoma says since the group started counselling the girls at Mtapo School, more girls than boys are being selected to secondary schools.
“In 2016, 15 girls against two boys were selected to secondary schools,” she says.
“We also act as their counsellors. Most of us did not complete our education but we encourage them to complete school and fight poverty in their families,” Nkhoma adds.
Mchinji, like other districts in the country, also faces numerous challenges in the education sector such as inadequate classrooms, hostels and teachers’ houses.
Lack of infrastructure is crippling education standards in the border district, as most learners learn under trees or use grass-thatched shades as classrooms making it difficult for students to learn during rainy season.
Meanwhile, ActionAid has come to the aid of some schools by constructing classroom blocks, teachers’ houses and hostels for girls in Kapiri in Traditional Authority Dambe.
Balitse Primary School Head teacher Angeline Nyirongo says her school had one block with two classrooms built by the community way back.
“Balitse was a junior primary school before ActionAid came in to assist in 2014. It had one classroom block and one teacher’s house; most of the pupils were learning outside resulting in many inconveniences.
“The community around the school and staff felt neglected that they were forced to work in such conditions,” she explains.
Nyirongo says when ActionAid came to their rescue and constructed two blocks with four classrooms and one teacher’s house, Balitse upgraded to a full primary school.
“As a female teacher, living in this new and decent house acts as a motivating factor to girls to work hard in school and be like me in the future,” says Kamkhate Primary School Head teacher Maria Sanudi, a beneficiary of ActionAid-constructed houses.
Lack of accommodation was also a nightmare for girls at CDSS in the same area, with most girls dropping out due to pregnancies.
The CDSS Head teacher Elias Malata says before the construction of the new hostels, most girls were renting in houses near the school which made them lose concentration.
“We had a situation where girls were staying in houses in communities next to boys’ houses; this resulted in relationships, and most girls were dropping out of school due to pregnancies,” he says.
Malata, however, says since ActionAid constructed a girls’ hostel with a capacity of 200, girls have been retained in schools.
“Before we had this hostel, there was poor pass rate of girls in Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations but now, as a school, we are able to supervise the girls and they are not allowed to go out of campus without permission,” he says.
According to Malata, the hostels are also installed with solar equipment which provides electricity to enable girls to study at night. The solar energy also pumps water to the hostels, a thing that has improved sanitation at the school.
ActionAid has also constructed school blocks at Chambidzi CDSS and female teacher’s houses at Kamkhate, Tsekwe, Chilowa and Gandali schools.
“We came up with this intervention because we realised most of the women in Kapiri in of Traditional Authority Dambe are illiterate compared to men, and we didn’t want to miss on encouraging the girls while they are still young,” she says.
Mulanga says that is why the organisation introduced the girls’ interactive clubs whereby girls meet regularly with support from mother groups to discuss issues which hinder them from progressing in their education.
“These girls are encouraged to come to school every day. Those that do not come to school are traced by mother groups and with support from their parents, the girls come back to school,” she says.
And due to this intervention, Mulanga says the trend in Kapiri has changed; more girls are selected to secondary school and perform much better than boys and the enrolment of girls has surpassed that of boys in primary school.
She also says the construction of school blocks has stopped most girls from walking long distances to schools as some of the schools like Balitse have upgraded to full primary school.
“In most home settings, parents tend to support boys and encourage them to attend school at the expense of girls. But due to our intervention, more parents are now supporting and encouraging girls to go to school as well,” Malunga says.
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