Keeping primary school learners nourished, safe
By Wanangwa Tembo:
It is break time at Chitunda Primary School, Traditional Authority M’nyanja, in Kasungu District.
Martha Chunga, a 10-year-old Standard 5 leaner, beams with delight as she runs alongside her classmates to a cooking shelter to get porridge.
The shelter is well cleaned and the day’s menu is pasted on the wall: soya and maize porridge mixed with groundnuts flour and vegetables.
“The porridge makes us alert during lessons. It is also a motivating factor for us not to miss classes. We are young and we cannot learn properly without eating,” says Martha as she hungrily shoves the mixture into her mouth.
Seated next to Martha is 12-year-old Justina Nkhata. The Standard 7 learner tells the visiting Norwegian ambassador Ingrid Mikelsen, United Nations Population Fund, Unicef and World Food Programme (WFP) officials that she does not miss classes even if there is no food at home because there is always a guarantee that she will eat at school.
“If there is no food at home, it becomes difficult to go to school on an empty stomach. But with the porridge that is provided at school, there is no reason to stay at home,” Justina says.
Chitunda is one of the 200 primary schools in the country that are benefitting from a United Nations Joint Programme on Girls Education (JPGE).
Launched in 2014, with support from the Norwegian Embassy, JPGE aims at improving access to and quality of quality for girls and reducing poverty through improved quality education and basic life skills for in and out of school adolescent girls.
Apart from offering nutritious food for learners in primary school, the programme also trains school-going girls on how they can defend themselves from abusive teachers and community threats.
According the programme’s coordinator, Francesca Lange, in its last phase spanning 2021— 2024, the $40 million initiative has been designed to reinforce the focus on quality education while promoting sustainable solutions to the challenges that hinder girls from accessing quality education.
“This integrated approach ensures that JPGE provides a package that promotes a conducive learning environment and provision of services to address the safety, sexual and reproductive health rights, health and nutrition needs of children and adolescents in and out of school.
“We had challenges in 2021 because of Covid but this time all activities are on track and the results are remarkable. In this phase we are also targeting boys so that we have a future generation which is healthy and educated and has opportunities,” Lange says.
The impact of the JPGE programme also becomes more pronounced considering the high incidences of poverty in a country where about 71 percent of the population live on less than $1.90 per day with an estimated 60.5 percent children under 17 years being considered multi-dimensionally poor.
Head teacher for Chitunda Primary School, Blessings Chigona, hails the programme, saying it has largely helped to retain learners at the school.
“Since the introduction of the JPGE home-grown feeding programme in 2021 at this school, enrolment has greatly improved.
“We have seen that school dropout rate has reduced. Consequently, our pass rate has also improved. For instance, we registered an 87 percent pass rate in 2022 while in 2021 it was at 82 percent and much lower in the previous years,” Chigona says.
Schools like Chitunda receive money through WFP, which is used to procure commodities for preparation of nutritious food for learners.
The food items such as soya beans, groundnuts, vegetables and yellow maize are procured from farmers’ cooperatives in the community.
“The cooperatives have been trained on what types of varieties are appropriate and schools like ours provide them with a readily available market. That is why the arrangement is christened home-grown feeding programme,” Chigona says.
In Kasungu alone, JPGE is providing daily diversified school meals to at least 23,000 pupils in 30 of the 383 public primary schools in the district.
It has also supported farmers’ organisations with food production and post-harvest management and with ready market in the schools which is improving farming activities and supporting children in school.
Dorothy Masudi is Director of Education, Youth and Sports for Kasungu.
She says through the JPGE intervention, 500 teachers in the district have so far been trained in inclusive education and gender responsive pedagogy.
“We have seen improved transition rates to secondary school because of this imitative. We have seen improved community support to schools and improved daily learner attendance. Pass rates to secondary school have also improved while repeating rates have gone down,” Masudi says.
On his part, Mikelsen says she is impressed with the impact that has come as a result of the intervention.
“Teenagers and adolescents need not rush into early marriages or drop out of school due to pregnancies. This is because the benefits of girls’ education extend to their own children who are often healthier and more educated because their mothers went to school,” the envoy says.
She adds that education is one of the Norwegian government’s priority areas in its development policy, which is designed to promote development, democratization and implementation of human rights, good governance and measures that can effectively lift citizens out of poverty.
She also says research has shown that education can put people on a path towards good health, empowerment and employment; hence her government’s support for the JPGE in Malawi.
“I am impressed with the facilities being offered in this multi-sectoral approach. Learners growing up in this generation today in Malawi need conducive learning environments to realise their rights and potential and to effectively contribute to society’s development – politically, financially, environmentally and climatically,” Mikelsen says.