Malawi, just like many other African countries, is facing a huge challenge to empower her young population, especially when it comes to giving them opportunities to realise their full potential.
And as the President of the African Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development (FPA), Marie Rose Nguini Effa, observes, empowering young people calls for crucial and sustainable investments into young people’s needs – their healthcare, their education.
She stresses that governments need to ensure that young people have access to modern contraception to allow them to take charge of their own futures, and also help to stabilise the fertility rate.
“All of this will contribute to the realisation of the African Union Agenda 2063 and SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals],” Effa, who is also Member of National Assembly of Cameroon and Member of the Pan-African Parliament says.
She stresses that for some, this is direct: more economic prosperity would mean better employment opportunities and increased financial stability on an individual level.
It also implies, however, an increased spending into crucial social needs such as healthcare, education and sustainable agriculture, which will not only have a knock-on effect upon the physical health and education level of citizens, but open up a whole new world of possibility for them.
“Once the basic human rights of health and education are met, social progress accelerates dramatically, and this is what we hope to see as African economies continue to develop,” Effa emphasises.
Due to widespread poverty in Malawi, educating children is a heavy burden for many families. When faced with a choice, parents will often choose to invest in education for their sons instead of daughters.
And as the 2018 report of the Borgen Project indicates, the state of girls’ education in Malawi is still in critical condition.
The report states that with more than 85 percent of its population living in rural areas, Malawi faces a critical problem of girls under-enrolled and outnumbered in the majority of its primary schools.
“Furthermore, primary education attendance does not mean that students will automatically go on to pursue higher level education. Only six percent of girls graduate from high school each year, with only 2.9 percent going on to seek post-secondary education studies,” says the report.
The situation is even worse in Mangochi where girls suffer multiple barriers to the enjoyment of their basic human rights of health and education.
Data from the district education office shows that schools in the district had registered 301, 873 learners at the start of the 2017/2018 academic year. But the figure dropped to 25, 249 by the end of the academic year, translating into eight percent dropout rate.
Senior Chief Nankumba discloses that child marriages are still a prominent cultural practice in the district, with more than 40 percent of girls married before celebrating their 18th birthday, the constitutional marriage age.
Nankumba says child marriage is often associated with limited education and employment opportunities, and is seen as a way of protecting girls from out of wedlock pregnancy.
“Adolescents are sometimes exposed to sexual activity at initiation ceremonies, which can lead to sex with peers and early marriages,” says the traditional leader.
Experts warn that the impacts of child marriage on girls can be severe and that most of them are at risk of early pregnancy injuries such as fistula.
They say more than 80 per cent of child brides experience physical abuse from their husbands. UNICEF points out that the main drivers of child marriage are poverty, cultural and religious traditions, and peer pressure.
The prevalence of HIV/Aids is another barrier that prevents girls from finishing school in the district.
With funding from Global Fund through Action Aid Malawi, World Vision Malawi (WVM) is implementing an Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW) programme aimed at advancing girls’ education in the district.
The programme aims to provide girls, young women and boys aged between 15 and 24 with opportunities so that they improve their livelihoods, while preventing and mitigating HIV and Aids.
Through providing teenage girls and young women with resources and information through youth clubs under traditional authorities (T/As) Chimwala, Chowe, Nankumba, Mponda, Jalasi, Chilipa and Bwananyambi,
World Vision Malawi Project Manager Clement Kolove says they are working in 163 schools where key activities of the programme focus on improving the education and learning environment for in-school AGYW, providing out-of-school AGYW with livelihood skills and improving the community engagement in AGYW specific interventions.
Kolove says the programme seeks to increase and enhance HIV information among the adolescents, enhanced life skill education, reduce cases of gender-based violence (GBV) as a result of awareness and increase access to sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) services and referral to support services.
“The programme dates teenage girls who dropped out of school for various reasons, including pregnancy and lack of parental care to return to school as a means of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and the spread of HIV and Aids. Our organisation realises the dire need to promote the education of girls and young women in order to improve their quality of life,” he explains.
Kolove further states that there is a strong link between education and a woman’s likelihood to abstain from sex and overall have fewer sexual partners.
He says since HIV and Aids remains prominent in Malawi, it is extremely important that sexually active women, many of whom are under 18, are educated on the matter.
“We not only value education as a fundamental human right for the youth, but also one of the many solutions to ending global poverty. Through the empowerment of girls and young women in Malawi, we are optimistic of breaking through cultural walls that keep the girls from receiving the education they need and deserve,” Kolove stresses.
Lead peer educator and youth clubs facilitator in T/A Nankumba, Prisca Gilbert, says the programme has received a lot of support from traditional and community leaders in the district.
Gilbert says at least 1, 000 girls have been withdrawn from early marriages and readmitted into school since in 2018.
“The programme has generated a lot of interest among girls and young women in this district. And we expect to see a huge increase in the number of girls completing their education in the long run,” she says.
World Vision Malawi hopes to encourage girls and young women to make healthy and educated life choices that will better their living conditions in adulthood.