As the world kick-starts the Global Action Week for Education, it is becoming increasingly evident that, while the Covid pandemic costs lives across the world, the cost in the education sector could be felt more in developing countries like Malawi. FLETCHER SIMWAKA writes.
After a 50-kilometre long, bumpy and dusty road westwards from Lilongwe City, we meet Shyreen Chiwake who, at the age of 16, has already defied dominant cultural odds in her area.
She is one of only 14 Standard Eight girls still pursuing their dreams at Makunje Primary School.
The majority of her age mates are now married or pregnant.
But the first-born in a family of five says she will never get married till she finishes tertiary education.
“I don’t want to get married young like most of the girls here; I want to become a nurse so that I can help my poor parents and provide medical care to the sick,” Shyreen says.
Her interest in education got a boost late last year when she was one of the 60 girls drawn from across the country to meet President Lazarus Chakwera at Kamuzu Palace to present issues affecting girls’ education in the country.
“The President encouraged us to work hard in class. He also assured us that he would take measures to improve education standards for girls in Malawi, and I am sure he will live up to his word,” Shyreen states.
The girl, who is also a member of the learners’ council formed with the facilitation of a ‘Tax Justice for Gender Responsive Public Service’ project being implemented by ActionAid Malawi with funding from Norad.
The learners’ council gives Shyreen and other leaners a platform to engage school authorities and other duty-bearers on management of funds such as School Improvement Grants (SIGs) and Constituency Development Fund (CDF) in relation to education.
However, Shyreen says while the learners’ council is performing its key roles in ensuring that CDF and SIG are used to improve the quality of education at the school some challenges requires more resources from the government.
She fears that if the government does not allocate more resources towards school infrastructure and recruitment of more teachers in rural primary schools, more girls will get married before completing their primary education.
Makunje Primary School Deputy Head teacher, Solomon Thom, agrees with Shyreen and says the Covid pandemic that struck the country in March last year has contributed to massive school dropouts.
“On average, about 200 learners enroll for Standard One at the school. However, only about 40 of them reach Standard Eight, with most of them dropping out due to early marriages or teenage pregnancies,” Thom says.
He further states that the 2020/21 academic year has been more turbulent as only 29 out of 43 Standard Eight learners returned to school after government ordered the re-opening of schools.
“Due to frequent school closures as part of Covid preventive measures, some learners have lost interest in school while some girls have been married off.
“Of course, there are efforts by the mother groups that try to bring the girls back to school but due to dominant cultural norms, such efforts do little to save the girls from early marriages,” Thom explains.
Thom’s remarks echo a rapid assessment conducted by the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare which noted an 11 percent increase in early marriages and teenage pregnancies on account of Covid induced school closures.
The assessment, that covered the March—September 2020 period, when the academic calendar was disrupted by the pandemic, recorded 13,000 cases of child marriage and 40,000 teenage pregnancies.
In an attempt to ensure continued learning during Covid, government introduced distant learning through the use of school radio programmes.
However, the arrangement only deepened existing inequalities in the education sector as most learners without access to radios felt left behind.
Some rural area learners, like Naphtali Nthala of Chaula Primary School in Ntchisi, did not have access to any school radio programme when schools were closed.
“I just heard there were some school radio programmes through friends, but I never had the opportunity to listen to such programmes,” Naphtali, 14, says.
The Standard Seven learner wants to become a High Court judge in the future.
“When schools were closed, I spent most of the time helping my parents with household chores, including selling potatoes at the market to make ends meet. In our area, there are few people with radio sets,” Naphtali says.
Such a grim picture rolls back the country’s efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, which centres on attaining quality education by the end of this decade.
Speaking during the 2020 Global Education Meeting, Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Agnes NyaLonje, said to deliver quality education during the Covid pandemic, the government needs more resources towards the education sector.
“In the primary subsector, we currently have a shortage of 90,000 classrooms, and in the secondary subsector we have a shortage of over 2,000 classrooms.
“For us as a country to cope with the pandemic in the education sector, we will need to build more classrooms and we will need to recruit more teachers,” NyaLonje said.