By Natasha Kalongosola:
Seventeen-year-old Elizabeth was withdrawn from marriage earlier this year after her case drew the attention of a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) working to keep little girls away from illegal unions.
But six months later, she has found herself in the same dilemma that pushed her into a union she had not imagined would be tenable at her age.
“I can’t manage to pay my school fees and my mother is failing to support me with learning materials and other needs,” Elizabeth says.
Her return to the ‘Good Samaritan’ that saved her from the unhappy marriage yielded nothing but hopelessness.
The project design of the NGO does not go beyond pulling underage girls out of marriage or preventing them from entering marriage.
“They told me that they don’t pay school fees but that they only facilitate change by carrying out projects aimed at ending child marriages,” Elizabeth says.
Her story is typical of several others where fragmented interventions fail to bring about desired impacts and lasting change.
And, generally, according to observers, that is why despite several NGOs working in communities across Malawi, poverty remains high.
“I have seen many NGOs’ impact areas but what is left in their wake leaves a lot to be desired,” says Lilongwe-based social and political commentator, Godfrey Pumbwa.
According to Pumbwa, the impact of such initiatives is not clear because most organisations do not collaborate in their work.
IM Country Director for Malawi, Steve Tahuna, shares Pumbwa’s thoughts, saying each organisation has an area of focus such that when implementing a project in a community, they tackle one factor while overlooking others that would contribute to holistic change.
“When you only deal with one of the factors contributing to a problem, mostly symptoms as opposed to causes, you risk failure to achieve societal change,” Tahuna explains.
Some organisations working against child marriage have succeeded to withdraw under-18 girls from the unions without addressing reasons that drew the girls out of school.
“When you identify a problem, then you focus on addressing it first. Otherwise, just making girls go back to school without addressing the challenges that made her leave school, seldom works completely,” Pumbwa says.
In several communities across the country, sometimes more than four NGOs are implementing similar projects in one area.
For example, according to a Health Policy Plus report, in Mchinji alone, five NGOs are working in youth-friendly health services with some working in one community.
But Pumbwa suggests that donors sometimes are to blame as they dictate what NGOs should do in a particular area, departing from what the project implementers had initially proposed.
“As such, it is found that different donors are funding different NGOs that are addressing the same problem in a community. The donors therefore, should as well be more informed about who else is working in that particular area when funding NGOs,” Pumbwa says.
But, slowly, there are areas which are advancing modifications to bring holistic change through NGOs’ interventions.
The area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwanza in Salima District is an example of where collaboration among NGOs, government departments and community leaderships is paying dividends.
In the area, NGOs such as Civil Society Education Coalition (Csec), Centre for Youth Empowerment and Civic Education (Cyece) and Women’s Legal Resources Centre (Wolrec), are working with the district council and community members to improve socio-economic development in the area.
These NGOs have partnered following recommendations from one of their donors, IM Swedish Development Partner.
They are carrying out projects aimed at retaining girls and children with disabilities in school, empowering women economically and educating girls on sexual and reproductive health rights.
Csec is implementing a five-year project from 2019 aimed at enhancing education quality and retention for girls and learners with disabilities in 15 schools in Kanongola Zone, T/A Mwanza while Cyece is working on interventions against child marriage and sexual and reproductive health rights awareness for girls.
On the other hand, Wolrec is working on women economic inclusion through village savings and loans. Through these groups, some women in T/A Mwanza have increased their income and are now able to support their children’s education.
Chinkhuli Primary School is among those benefiting from the NGOs’ interventions.
“These days, you hardly see a child at home during school time. This is so because the NGOs have taught us the importance of educating our children,” says Chinkhuli Mother Group chairperson, Ketrina Luka.
She adds that unlike in the past, education is now inclusive for children with disabilities.
“In the past, children with disabilities were not allowed to enroll in school. We were told that teachers could not handle them. As such, parents with children with disabilities kept them at home,” Luka explains.
She also discloses that women in the area are now running their own businesses using the money they earn from savings and loans groups which the NGOs are facilitating.
Pumbwa hails IM Swedish Development Partner for facilitating and encouraging cooperation among NGOs and urges other donors to follow suit.
“Before NGOs start working in a specific area, let them find out the challenges that the community is facing and all NGOs should work towards addressing those challenges collectively,” he says.
Perhaps, that approach would help Elizabeth and hundreds other girls who are saved from early marriage but return to the illegal unions after failing to sustain their school lives.
IM itself wants to go beyond the current setup and explore partnerships in speeding up the problem-solving process.
“There is need to take advantage of the partner ecosystem to identify other partners who may come in to help solve the challenges that are there in order to speed up change,” Tahuna says.