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Creating a fear-free learning process

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By her standards, Martha would be called a bright girl. She is 16, in standard 7 at Nkolokoti primary school in Blantyre and dreams of becoming a lawyer.

Every morning, she has to wake up at 4am to do household chores. It is only after finishing the household chores that she leaves for school. Once back from school, she goes to the market to sell various items. It is not her wish. She is forced to do so by her aunt with whom she stays. She is threatened with being sent packing if she refuses to do that.

An orphan, having lost both parents some years back, Martha further faces sexual abuse from her uncle. He touches her breasts each time he desires.

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For a long time, she kept everything to herself as she did not have anyone to present her problems to. Thanks for the project’s coming to her school, Martha found somewhere to present her problems in the Girls Empowerment Network (Genet).

The environment under which pupils like Martha feel free to say out their problems is created under the Learn Without Fear programme. This is a community-based project with the goal of contributing towards creating a safe, secure and protective environment within schools and surrounding communities.

Ultimately, the project seeks to achieve positive education outcomes through the reduction of incidences of sexual exploitation, child abuse and violence against children in and around schools.

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It is implemented in Traditional Authorities Kapeni, Chigaru, Machinjiri and Somba, targeting 24 primary schools in six educational zones of Limbe, Lunzu, Chilomoni, South Lunzu, Nankumba and Mdeka.

“I am proud to say that the Learn Without Fear project has had a lot of impact. There is improved awareness and advocacy on school-related violence at all levels and increased awareness by pupils on their rights and how to protect themselves against abuse,” said Genet Project Officer, Mercy Mituka.

“There is also an improved learning environment; systematic prevention, reporting and response mechanism at school level; and healthy relationships among pupils, teachers and parents through school-related activities.”

The project used a number of initiatives to create the conducive environment. Mituka said the activities targeted both children as primary beneficiaries and teachers, parents and other relevant stakeholders as secondary beneficiaries.

Among others, between November and December last year, there has been training and orientation for child rights clubs, teachers, school management committees (SMCs) and mother groups; monitoring visits and interface meetings with learners, teachers and chiefs; follow ups on child rights violation cases; sports bonanza and motivation talks by role models.

Mituka said critical in the implementation of the project has been the use of suggestion boxes. Through them, pupils have openly expressed their concern. And some issues in a number of schools have already been resolved.

For instance, at Ntenjera primary school pupils reported being beaten by their fellow learners. Once the school authorities learnt about the situation, they put in place measures that arrested the problem. It was announced at the assembly that whoever is caught ill-treating others would be expelled.

Learners had also reported punishments such as being sent to fetch grass for teachers. The school management committee resolved the complaint and pupils no longer fetch grass as punishment ever since the resolution.

At Namilango primary school, there were water problems which were only solved after the pupils complained through the suggestion boxes. The school now has workers who fetch water for the pupils.

Back at Martha’s Nkolokoti primary school, the learners expressed concern about toilets that had no doors thus taking away their right to privacy. After the problem was highlighted, the school management committee fixed doors to the toilets.

Committee treasurer, Langton Kapachika, said that the coming of the Learn Without Fear project to the school has gone beyond just seeing doors fixed to the toilets.

“We are thankful to Genet for introducing this programme to our school. We have managed to improve on a lot of things after pupils complained through the suggestion boxes,” said Kapachika.

“As a committee, we have also embarked on a desk maintenance project following pupils’ complaints that they go back home dirty because they sit on the floor in most of the classes. The school has also managed to buy chemicals for the toilets after pupils complained about the offensive smell from the toilets.”

Kapachika further said that through the suggestion boxes the committee has also heard stories from pupils who are abused in their homes. Action has also been taken on the same.

“We have the issue of Martha who is being abused by her aunt. Her issue is being tackled systematically since it is very sensitive. The girl asked not to be revealed as she fears her aunt would send her packing if she discovered that she had complained to the school,” he said.

At Chilomoni primary school, one of the achievements of the Learn Without Fear project is the solving of problems created by a gang calling itself Boko Haram.

The group had been a problem terrorising the pupils and completely leaving them terrified. Most of them started absconding from school because of the problems caused by the gang.

The gang members used to come to the school and asked for money from the learners. In cases where the learners refused to give out the money, the gang members would threaten them with knives they always carried. Some pupils were attacked and got beaten.

When Genet came for message development with the learners, the latter brought forward the issue that the pupils were learning with fear because of the group of notorious boys.

As part of the ways of solving the problem, Genet facilitated a meeting with learners, teachers, chiefs, school management committees and mother groups during which heads banged and a solution was found. The matter was brought to the head teacher’s attention and action, which included reporting the matter to police, was taken.

The chief, the school management committee and the child protection section also pledged to follow up on this issue, promising to have the boys investigated and the pupils were assured of their safety.

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