Walking the talk on girls education
Mary started an intimate relationship with a boy she met while in primary school. She fell pregnant and was forced to drop out of school.
That time, she was 14-years-old and had little understanding of what she had gotten herself into.
She was heavily overwhelmed by pessimism about what her future held.
“I felt empty. I was doomed,” says the resident of Mwawalo Village, Traditional Authority Nkanda in Phalombe. “In fact, I was lucky to give birth without complications,” she says.
Today, she is back in school and is seriously pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse.
“I am working hard. I don’t look back to my past with regret but to the future with optimism. I just make sure that I get good grades every school term,” she says.
At school, Mary is a member of 18+ Club championed by Plan International Malawi to discourage early marriages and convince school dropouts to return to class.
From 2017 to 2019 the initiative by Plan International Malawi and Girls Empowerment Network managed to end over 829 early marriages with some victims returning to school.
It has involved chiefs, children and different community leaders who are championing the campaign of preventing and ending early marriages.
There are also selected male champions who were trained to keep their eyes open to make sure that no girl under the age of 18 gets married willingly or unwillingly.
Chairperson for Nkanda Male Champions Group, Joseph Nakali says: “Some [girls] were abandoning school just out of negligence while others fell pregnant. We managed to get them back to school six months after they gave birth.”
He adds: “When one gets back to school after giving birth, we encourage her to just focus on education and whenever she needs school fees or notebooks, we help with the little we have.”
Since 2017, the male champions in T/A Nkanda have rescued 532 girls from the jaws of early marriages, 33 of whom have gone back to school.
The same impact has been seen in T/A Juma where 72 girls are back in class out of the 297 that were rescued from marriage.
The male champions have also been fighting cultural practices that put girls’ at risk.
Plan Malawi Communications and Campaigns Manager, Rogers Siula, says the programme has been 85 percent effective in meeting the set goals.
“These are young people that drop out of school due to various factors. It could be early pregnancies, poverty and other challenges that they encounter. So what we have done is to empower community members at all levels including chiefs and male champions,” he said.
However, the programme is facing challenges in producing lasting change among the targeted people.
Most of the mentors who reach out to victims are sometimes welcomed with hard-to-answer questions: “If I leave my baby at home and go to school, what will the baby be eating? Where will I get school fees?”
The mentors often fail to provide convincing answers.
Additionally, among several girls, school fees is a problem that keeps them away from school even after they have been saved from early marriages.
They are crying for well-wishers to help them as they seek to realise their dreams once more.
Mathews Kasanda is a journalist who holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from University of Malawi (The Polytechnic).
In 2015, Media Institute of Southern Africa awarded him the Best Print Media Education Journalist of the Year accolade.
He joined Times Group Newsroom in September 2019.