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Girls at the mercy of wild men

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At 17 and nursing an eight-month-old baby, Rebecca is not interested to discuss circumstances that pushed her into a sexual relationship that forced her out of school.

It is only after her mother persuades her that telling her story may save other girls at risk of dropping out of school and getting pregnant young that she gradually opens up.

She gently folds her little child in her arms, a distant look registering in her pale eyes.

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“I feel like I am chained; my future forever damned,” Rebecca says, her thin adolescent voice tinged with gloom.

Beside the torn reed mat where she is sitting on a windswept veranda of her mother’s house at the foot of an undulating range of hills outside Nsanje Town are exercise books that she opens now and then.

She collects her thoughts and begins to speak again.

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“In a few months, my friends will be writing their [Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations]. I envy them. They are in charge of their futures and I am not,” Rebecca says before her mother softly pats her on the shoulder and mutters something to the effect that all remains well.

After a few minutes, the young mother expressively opens up and bares her past, fears, frustrations and pain.

She says the long distance from her home—a flat stretch at the eastern foot of Matandwe Forest Reserve in Nsanje—to Nyamadzere Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) at the town centre exposed her to temptations that ended in the pregnancy.

Her poor mother, who lost her husband over a decade ago, could not manage to always give Rebecca enough money for hiring a bicycle taxi to take her to school.

“So, I was forced to date this other man who got me pregnant. When I told him that I was pregnant, he bolted and I have never seen him again,” she says while stroking her son’s soft hair.

Her mother seems reluctant to pursue the matter further apparently because she was aware of the relationship and fears she might be accused of abetting defilement.

She does not want to talk about the man but insists she will do everything possible to ensure her daughter returns to school soon.

“We can’t undo what was done. I know he took advantage of my daughter’s poverty to lure her into sex. I wish I could sufficiently provide for her,” Rebecca’s mother says with abstract regret.

Nyamadzere CDSS has an almost complete girls’ hostel which Rebecca believes would have played a crucial role in keeping in school girls whose resolve get sapped by long distances they cover every day.

For close to 12 years, the hostel has remained decommissioned purportedly because some final fittings were not done.

During our recent visit to the school, we discovered that construction works were already completed with just water and electricity connections remaining.

“It is sad that on one hand government claims it is promoting girls’ education while on the other, it neglects infrastructure which would significantly help in the cause,” councillor for

Dindi Ward, Boniface Chimpokosera, in whose area of jurisdiction the school is, laments.

He chides the central government, which owns the hostel project, for contradicting its own widely propagated tale of striving to keep girls in school.

The local leader is particularly concerned that the structures are now at the mercy of vandals who are landing their hands on anything they find worthwhile.

“We have talked about this issue even at full council meetings and we have sent messages to the central government, but nothing is happening,” Chimpokosera says.

The hostel project was designed to include a modern kitchen attached to a spacious dining hall and a complete maize mill.

All these are now lying idle while girls are in desperate need of a safe place to occupy near their school, especially those whose homes are several kilometres away.

Some of them decided to occupy the maize mill building as they prepare to sit their MSCE examinations this year.

“We asked for permission from our head teacher to occupy the dysfunctional maize mill so that we have enough time to study. At home, we often spend time doing household chores,” a Form Four learner at the school, Mary Matemba, says.

She admits that several of her peers dropped out school, with some of them getting pregnant or married, because they could not endure the long distances they had to cover every school day.

Sitting on a vandalised bed in what was now supposed to be an occupied wing of the 160-bed structure, Mary has one solemn and profound plea to authorities.

She says: “For us, there is no hope. It is clear the hostel will not be opened anytime soon. But at least authorities should consider the plight of girl learners coming after us.”

And chairperson for Malemia Area Development Committee, in whose jurisdiction Nyamadzere CDSS is located, Mathias Chilumba, vows that for the sake of girls in this country’s southernmost district, they will continue to push for the opening of the hostel.

Perhaps, the little final fittings holding the functionality of the structures will be fixed as soon as possible, so he hopes.

Some optimism could finally be coming from sentiments by the Ministry of Education that it will endeavour to complete all projects which were abandoned in various schools across the country.

But until then, girls who were supposed to be sleeping in modern and safe hostels at Nyamadzere CDSS are reluctant to accept that their plight is a matter of urgent concern to authorities.

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