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Mothers fighting for girls to stay in school

Unlike the somehow culturally adorned scenes observed in the other areas we had visited, our arrival in the area of Traditional Authority (TA) Makanjira (formerly Msosa), more than 35 kilometres northwest of Salima boma, did not receive any noticeable pomp.

We expected to be welcomed by smiling faces of a group of women; those that, accompanied by children exposing their dusted bellies, would be invitingly shaking their waists, performing traditional dances as your cars snake around their huts. Just two or three women came out of the world that unveiled itself in front of us.

They walked towards the car we were in. Hands stretched. And we got their greetings. They later directed us to a shelter where our guests had gathered, waiting for us. Cynical is what everyone entering this world on that day would have been. The people were bitingly quiet. But things opted for a change just after the traditional opening prayer and introductory statements.

One after another, members of the community narrated their stories which were but rousing. The stories were mainly on the successes of the area’s community parliament and how the area’s bylaws, which the parliament’s members formulate, are working.

Others were on Community Action Groups (Cags), which deal with all sorts of gender-based violence (GBV), and Village Savings Loans (VSLs).

The stories were all amazing. But memories of one woman who spoke during the gathering will remain. She introduced herself as Annie Jabili, chair of the Makanjira mother group. Hers is a cluster of women which aims at ensuring that school going girls in the area are in school. Jabili spoke with striking confidence. Her selection of words and speaking technique was wonderful. And she proficiently outlined her group’s duties and responsibilities.

She, for that moment, stole our team’s attention. “After observing that most girls in this area were dropping out of school and getting married, we thought of doing something,” she narrated. “In the initial stages of our programme, we started with exploring reasons behind the problem and started addressing such challenges to keep our girls in school.”

She said the group found that lack of toilets, uniforms, knowledge on how to handle menstruation periods and, of course, less or no parental support and guidance due to an old belief that “girl children are not supposed to be educated” were some of the problems that featured highly in their apparently already informed research.

“Now many girls are going to school because we facilitated the building of toilets in the schools around this area, including the nearest Mnema primary school. For the uniforms, we usually mobilise some funds among ourselves and buy school uniforms for girls from families that cannot afford,” she said.

“We also advise them on how to handle menstruation periods and conduct some frequent monitoring to guide their school performance.” Realising that the goal of promoting girl education in an area that has historically been against girl education cannot be achieved without special legal backing, the community members through their ‘parliament’ enacted some bylaws to compel all families to send their children to school.

This is according to Group Village Headman (GVH) Makanjira. “After our parliament came up with these bylaws, we also involved all community members through a mass meeting at the school ground where we also had the general input before the implementation,” said GVH Makanjira.

“However, before 2013 when Gewe [Gender Equality and Women Empowerment Programme] was launched, we had some bylaws but were inspired by ignorance. So, when Gewe came we reviewed the laws to strengthen them.”

GVH Makanjira said the families that are reluctant to send their children to school are ‘traditionally’ fined using the bylaws. “We tell them to pay five chickens when they appear before the GVH court but for the TA’s court they pay a goat. We still insist on advising them to send the children to school or risk more punishments.

With such laws, we now have a lot of children in schools in this area,” he said. According to Community Development Assistant (CDA) for Makanjira, Harry Makombola, the situation has changed. He stressed that Makanjira area, which is near one of the economic hubs in the district – Mbenje Island on Lake Malawi – was one of the areas that proved hard to change when it came to girl education.

Salima northwest parliamentarian, Jessie Kabwila, concurred with Makombola’s sentiments about the area that loathed sending girls to school. “When we were campaigning for May 20 elections, people of Makanjira told me point blank not to mislead their children with my girl child education campaign,” said Kabwila in an interview.

However, notwithstanding all the community efforts to do away with some cultural beliefs and encourage girls to go to school, the more than 20-kilometre distance to what is said to be the nearest Matenje Community Day Secondary School is one of the major challenges the campaign is facing.

Thus, after completing primary school, girls who fail to go to the boarding schools have another hill to climb. For the boys, they can cycle to Matenje from Monday to Friday but for the girls? “Without a secondary school nearby, all the girl child education initiatives are in vain. We already have some 500,000 bricks and we just need financial support to build the school,” Makanjira added.

“But what normally happens is that every time the community asks for support, the usual answer is ‘there is no money; we will consider your request when the funds will be available’. We don’t know as to when the funds will be available.”

Kabwila said she is aware of the development and stressed that she has always campaigned for the education of the girl child. She added that she has also discussed the same with District Education Manager (Dem). The girl education campaign in the Makanjira area is part of the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment (Gewe) Programme, and through it some girls who dropped out of school due to early pregnancies have gone back to school.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the European Union (EU) are supporting the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare in the implementation of the programme in another 13 districts across the country.

In Salima the programme is being implemented by District Interfaith Aids Committee (Diac) under Malawi Interfaith Aids Association (Miaa). Salima Diac Secretary, Maida Iman, said the areas of TA Makanjira and TA Mwanza were targeted due to “high school dropout rates among girls.”

Gewe aims at reducing gender inequalities between men, women, girls and youths in accessing productive resources and development opportunities and promoting decision making in order to contribute positively to the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) II and accelerate attainment of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

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