She attributes her current situation to peer pressure. She never had details of what she was getting into. All she was interested in was fun.
She, therefore, frequently attended night entertainment activities common in Salima’s Maganga area.
At 15, Eliza, could not imagine falling pregnant.
But like many other young people in the area she used to go to the night entertainment activities, which are popularly known as Mchezo in the area. [Mchezo is short form of a Chichewa word Kuchezera, which means ‘happening throughout the night’]
One night, in 2016, as she was coming back from Mchezo, a boy proposed love to her. She later fell pregnant. Her parents were infuriated.
“I asked for their forgiveness. I told them that after delivery, I would go back to school. That is exactly what I have done. I believe my dream of becoming a nurse will one day be fulfilled,” she said.
Statistics at Maganga Primary School show alarming levels of early pregnancies. Since 2015 at least 50 cases of school dropout due to pregnancies have been recorded.
The youngest on the list is a 10-year-old, while the oldest is an 18-year-old.
Seventeen-year old Deena, who has returned to school after getting pregnant last year, says the night entertainment activities have contributed to the trend.
“We like going out at night to dance. This starts around 8 o’clock at night and ends at around 3 o’clock in the morning of the following day. In most cases, we get out of our houses when our parents have gone to sleep,” she says.
Maganga Primary School Headmaster, Sylvester Maseko, says dropout rate at the school was very high five years ago.
He, however, says over the years it has been going down.
“Now things have improved. This has happened because of some interventions. We have a programme which is being implemented in Salima. Among other issues is promoting education of girls. Such issues as sexual reproductive health rights, child protection, menstrual hygiene and many others are being promoted. There are also other stakeholders such as mother groups who are playing a key role in re-admission of girls to schools,” he says.
He, however, emphasizes the need to deal with all factors that are fueling school dropout in the area.
“One of the factors is that the community around here does not value education. There are some ceremonies that happen at night involving boys and girls. These are fueling early pregnancies. We have by-laws aimed at promoting education but the community does not obey them,” he says.
Group Village Head Maganga says they are doing all they can to promote education in the area.
“We try all we can to make sure that children don’t drop out of school. But if, for instance, a girl drops out of school due to pregnancy, we encourage them to go back to school. We have by-laws. Once they are broken the parents pay a fine,” he says.
Maganga Primary School mother group chairperson, Memory Chitekwere, says they have intensified efforts of taking back teen mothers to school.
“We visit the girls at school and in their respective homes. We ask them to tell us their problems. As a result, we find ways of making sure that they are easily accepted in the schools,” she says.
She, however, says a lot has to be done to woo more children to go back to school after dropping out.
“We should be fully equipped so that the girls know the negative impact of early pregnancies, as well as the benefits of education. We, therefore, need to receive enough training on how best we can perform our duties,” she says.
Some teen mothers may be lucky to go back to school. But to others, such opportunities may not be there at all.
A 2018 survey report on Traditional Practices in Malawi, revealed that child marriages are widespread in the country especially in girls, with some marrying before the age of 15.
The survey, jointly conducted by the Centre for Child Well-being at the University of Zurich, National Statistical Office of Malawi, the Centre for Social Research at University of Malawi and United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Malawi, revealed that nine percent of women who participated in the survey married before the age of 15 while 42 percent of them married before the age of 18.
It also revealed that one percent of the males married before the age of 15, while six percent married before the age of 18.
A recent UN Women perception study on social norms around violence against women and girls in Malawi, also found that gender inequality, including harmful practices such as child and early marriages are pervasive in the country.
The study was conducted in Dedza, Karonga, Mangochi, Mzimba and Salima districts to understand violence against women and girls.
Salima is one of the districts United Nations Joint Programme on Girls Education (UNJPGE) is being implemented.
UN agencies, Unicef, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and World Food Programme (WFP) are working together, to among other issues ensure that girls and boys in targeted schools are be provided with diversified school meals, and that they have access to Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) information and services.
This is the programme Maganga Primary school headmaster, Maseko, is saying has helped reduce school dropout rate.
One of the girls who have gone back to school as a result of the intervention is 17-year-old Falina.
“In 2016, I fell pregnant. I was in Standard 8 and upon delivery I went back to school. I passed primary school examinations. Currently, I am doing secondary education at Maganga Community Day Secondary School. I am now focused on education,” she says.
Financed by the Norwegian Government, jointly implemented by the Government of Malawi and the three UN agencies, UNJPGE is designed as a multi-sectoral intervention, recognising the different factors impacting girls’ access to education and their ability to complete it.
Unicef Malawi Chief of Education and Adolescents, Kimanzi Muthengi, said the programme addresses education, nutrition, and sexual and reproductive health concerns in a holistic manner by also focusing on other aspects such as life skills, gender equality, social position and community engagement.
“So far, JPGE II has directly reached 212,106 learners, who have benefitted from activities implemented at the 169 schools. While over 196,000 young people have accessed Youth Friendly Health Services (YFHS) at the targeted facilities,” he says.
The 2018 Survey on Traditional Practices in Malawi has clearly stated that unplanned pregnancies significantly contribute to child marriages.
It states that child marriage is a harmful cultural practice as it potentially results in school dropouts.
The survey concluded that this affects future livelihood opportunities, especially for girls.
As development partners are promoting education, the government should also intensify efforts of uprooting all factors impeding children’s access to education.