At 15, Bertha Fanuel is not a proud mother. She is, however, delighted that she is back in class after a yearlong break during which she endured life in a marriage she had never longed for.
Poverty drove her out of school at Mthumba Community Day Secondary in Chikwawa— into the ‘care’ of a boy from her village.
He was still staying with his parents when the two underage children got into a sexual relationship.
“It was difficult for my mother, a single parent, to meet my basic necessities. I started dating the boy because I thought he would be meeting my basic needs as a girl and as a learner,” Bertha explains.
As time went by and her affair with her boyfriend got intense, Bertha realised she was pregnant and dropped out of school.
“After falling pregnant, I thought it was better for me to get married to him. It appeared, that time, there was nothing left for me,” she states.
Life in that marriage was not easy for the young girl who aspires to become a journalist.
Her ‘husband’ would not optimally provide for the young family as he was also depending on his parents for survival.
Still, apparently in line with a censured cultural practice, he was on course to marry Bertha’s 12-year-old sister.
“My sister and I agreed to report the matter to the police who came to our rescue. Some well-wishers approached me and talked about the importance of school. I dumped marriage and returned to school,” she says.
Apparently, Bertha’s ‘husband’ married another girl and is now living in South Africa.
She maintains the last time they were together—when they lived as husband and wife—is the closest she would ever get to him.
Today, supported by Save the Children, her return to school is proving worthwhile.
Bertha is among girls targeted in the ‘Apatseni Mwayi Atsikana Aphunzire (AMAA)’, translated as ‘give girls a chance to learn’ project whose aim is to mitigate barriers to girls’ enrolment and retention in school.
“Save the Children paid my school fees apart from giving me learning materials and other necessities,” she says.
Apart from Chikwawa, the initiative also covered Balaka, Machinga, Phalombe and Mzimba, targeting girls aged 10–19 in both upper primary and secondary schools.
Bertha appeals to other girls who dropped out of school after they fell pregnant or got married to make up their minds and return to school.
“It is never too late,” she says, manifestly finding satisfaction in her own decision of escaping the yoke of a tough married life.
The learner is also grateful to Save the Children through its AMAA project which she says significantly revived her dream of getting educated and becoming a journalist.
The project, funded by United States Agency for International Development, rolled out in 2017 and winds up this year.
Save the Children Malawi Country Director Kim Koch is contented with what the initiative has achieved during the four years it has been the Shire Valley district and elsewhere.
“‘We have worked together to cultivate the necessary knowledge, skills, competencies and attitudes which matter to support girls so that they enrol, remain and succeed in secondary schools,” Koch says.
The project has been providing bursaries to schoolboys and schoolgirls apart from meeting other needs to ensure they are successful in their secondary education.
Koch says in Chikwawa District alone, the project has reached more than 9,000 learners from Form Two to Form Four so that they could get through with their secondary education.
“We have been reaching more than 44,000 people in the district with life skills and 8,500 fathers to be better fathers who can help in the education of their children,” she explains.
In the meantime, Koch hopes district welfare officers and education authorities will come together and continue supporting vulnerable learners beyond the project.
Chikwawa District Council Director of Education, Youth and Sports, Chrissy Chimsale, reveals that through Save the Children’s efforts, several girls have returned to school after falling pregnant or marrying before their 18th birthday.
“Of course, some gains were affected by the closure of schools due to the Covid pandemic. But, overall, we have seen great improvements in the number of girls going back to school or remaining in school,” Chimsale says.