By Maureen Kawerama, contributor:
Latifa Josephy, 20, from Namaninga Village in the area of Senior Chief Bwananyambi in Mangochi, nearly got added to statistics of girls who drop out of school in the area.
When she got selected to Masuku Community Day Secondary School in 2019 in the lakeshore district, her dream of becoming a nurse almost got shattered.
Her parents could not afford to pay K12,500 school fees.
“I stayed home for about six months while my peers were attending classes. The school could not admit me without paying fees,” she recalls.
Seeing that there was no hope on her path, she opted to get married, an ideal that her parents backed.
They went ahead to arrange a 25-year-old man for her in a betrothal arrangement known in vernacular as chitomero. That time, Latifa was 17.
In the course of the arrangements, her parents got an enquiry from Senior Chief Bwananyambi of Mangochi, who promised to support her education after they informed her about the girl’s predicament.
The traditional leader moved to pay school fees for Latifa through her Bwananyambi Education Fund until she finishes her secondary education.
“I immediately ended the relationship with the man. Now, I am in Form Three continuing with my education. My dream of becoming a nurse got revived,” she says.
Her case exemplifies those of several other girls who are pushed into early marriages after their parents fail to pay their school fees.
At least Latifa and 25 other girls in national, district and community day secondary schools have recouped their dreams, thanks to the chief’s intervention.
Currently, the fund is also supporting 54 boys with school fees so that they remain in school.
A 2018 report by the Borgen Project indicates that the state of girls’ education in Malawi is still in a critical condition.
The report says with more than 85 percent of its population living in rural areas, Malawi faces a problem of girls under-enrolled and outnumbered in the majority of the country’s primary schools.
It adds that only six percent of girls graduate from high school each year, with only 2.9 percent going on to seek post- secondary education.
In Mangochi, one of Malawi’s biggest tourist destinations, girls experience multiple barriers in their pursuit of education due to inadequate resources.
When faced with a choice, parents often opt to invest in the education of their sons at the expense of their daughters.
In an interview, Senior Chief Bwananyambi said she thought of coming up with this initiative as one way of supporting girls’ education in her area.
The chief concedes that cases of girls marrying before they reach their 18th birthdays are rampant in the district, at more than 40 percent, which also has one of the highest rates of early pregnancies in the country.
She attributes the situation to entrenched cultural practices such as chitomero.
“One of my key responsibilities is to end this problem in my area. After I nullified marriages of some girls, most of them failed to get back to school because of their parents’ poverty.
“They had no one to support them with school fees, so I decided to establish the fund with my fellow traditional leaders to support the children with school fees,” Bwananyambi says.
Every village head contributes K1,000 per month while group village heads part ways with K2,000 each.
Bwananyambi’s own contribution to the fund stands at K5,000 a month.
“We also get money from our Member of Parliament through the Constituency Development Fund and from Mangochi District Council with which to help the needy students,” she says.
The chief adds that so far, 500 early marriages have been annulled with 300 children from the unions returning to school.
“Last year alone, we nullified 58 early marriages and 38 of them are back to school, some in primary and others in secondary schools,” she said.
Bwananyambi appeals to government, non-governmental organisations and individuals to support the cause as the number of needy schoolchildren keeps rising.
She discloses that even for the students that the fund supports, there are some outstanding fees balances that need to be settled.
On efforts to keep girls in school, Ministry of Education Principal Secretary Chikondano Mussa points at a number of bursaries established to support their education.
“At school level, we have some structures that are there like mother groups that support girls. We also have NGOs that are implementing campaigns for girls’ education,” Mussa says.
However, education policy advocate Limbani Nsapato maintains Malawi has a long way in terms of supporting girls’ education.
For Latifa, Stella and a host of several other girls, at least their lost futures are back in their folds.