As the world is pushing for equal opportunities for men and women, YOHANE SYMON in this FRIDAY SHAKER explains how girls continue to lag behind in access to education due to deeply entrenched cultural practices.
Malawi Demographic and Health Survey report of 2017 presents a bad picture about girls revealing that 54 percent of teen mothers in Malawi had no formal education.
The report adds that 32 percent of them attained primary school education and 19 percent for secondary education.
Most of the affected girls, according to the survey, are found in rural areas where poverty and lack of school infrastructure push them out of school into early marriages.
There are some sectors of society who have hugely attributed the rise in early pregnancies to poverty, while other fingers point to moral decay as the main reason.
However, some of the girls who have fallen pregnant while young such as Chisomo (not real name) of Makumba Village, Traditional Authority (T/A), Chowe in Mangochi District tell a different story.
She explains that when she attained puberty, her parents asked their neighbours to counsel her on how to live onwards.
“But most of what they told me was to do with how to take care of a man. By that time, a man to me was just an ordinary human being. I did not know that a man had other uses until that day. This made me interested to find out what the ladies told me,” she recalls shyly.
From that day, Chisomo embarked on a journey to discover more.
The journey was to be cut short. At the age of 16, Chisomo got pregnant.
She was then in Standard 7. She eventually dropped out of school.
Her world immediately changed as her parents as well as the man responsible for the pregnancy was no longer interested in her.
“I was angry and wanted to kill myself. However, some women encouraged me to remain strong. Pregnancy comes with some strong food cravings. But when I asked for the food from my mother, she was not giving any, directing me to the man who impregnated me. By this time, the man was nowhere to be seen,” she explains.
Mangochi is one of the districts where a programme called United Nations Joint Programme on Girls Education (UNJPGE) is being implemented.
With support from the Government of Norway, United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and World Food Programme (WFP) are working together to promote education of girls.
The progamme has played a crucial role in ensuring that girls who drop out of school due to pregnancies resume their education.
On top of that, UNJPGE is also working with Mother Support groups who are responsible for identifying girls that have dropped out of school and facilitate their re-admission.
After that, the Mother group also provide support to the teen in school teen mothers.
The support is in the form of school uniforms, sanitary pads among others.
Chisomo is one of the girls in the district who have benefitted from the initiative.
She says she is not going to mess her second chance.
“I don’t want to look back. I have a child and want to work hard in school, become a well-to-do person so that my children will not go through what I went,” she says.
T/A Chowe, who is a member of Mangochi District Education Service Committee, believes having relevant polices can help tackle teenage pregnancies in Malawi.
He expresses concern that in most cases, traditional att i tudes and practices emphasise preparing girls for marriage and sexual partnerships more than their economic and development abilities.
“The traditional attitudes and practices have led to the problem of low participation of girls in development activities. Girls tend to be further marginalised and among the many problems that they face, early marriage is one of their biggest problems,” he says.
Chowe adds: “We cannot always blame it on poverty because we usually see parents spending a lot of money during initiation ceremonies. This money can as well be used to support girls’ education. The problem is that girls are regarded as wives and are forced to marry while boys go to school. This has to stop if girls are to remain in school.”
Chowe also explains that failure to engage the youth in sexuality education at home and in school has proved to be another element which is making some girls to try what they hear from their peers.
The chief also suggests the need to put in place adequate school infrastructure to make sure that learners are not forced to travel long distances to schools.
“In Mangochi, we do not have enough schools. In total, we have around 290 primary schools and around 35 Community Day Secondary schools against a population of about 400,000 school-going children. These schools are not enough,” he says.
The chief also says there is need to strengthen available by-laws and make sure that all traditional leaders and parents are adhering to them.
In the past years, Chowe says his area has reduced school dropout among girls due to the available by-laws which contains punitive elements targeting chiefs and parents who are marrying girls.
“In the last academic year, we managed to collect about K300, 000 in fines. The money was used to pay for school needs for needy learners from the same area,” he says.
T/A Nankumba of the same district says he has suspended five traditional leaders who were not abiding to the by-laws that promote girls education.
“We have noted that chiefs can play a key role in making sure that their subjects are sending children to school. If there are more dropouts in a single village, the respective chief is punished. If the issue continues, we relieve the village headman of his responsibilities,” Nankumba says.
However, Mercy Makumba, a teacher at Makumba Primary School, who is among the leading mentors for girls, shifts the blame back to the chiefs for their failure to denounce some harmful cultural practices.
“Chiefs are the custodians of culture in our areas, but what I have seen is that some of the traditional leaders are reluctant to enforce by-laws. In some cases, chiefs connive with parents to deliberately increase the age of a girl so that she can be allowed to get married,” she says.
Makumba believes if all stakeholders can work together, issues of teenage pregnancy and child marriages can be easily solved.
Mangochi District Education Manager, Joe Magombo, could not agree less with the chiefs on the need to increase the number of schools in the district.
Currently, Magombo says there is evidence that if you bring schools closer to the people, there are chances that children will be able to further their education.
“The support we are getting from partners has improved performance and enrollment in our schools. But we need to increase the number of secondary schools to absorb the learners that are completing their primary school. Around 15 or 20 secondary schools are required to improve the situation in the district,” he says.
Magombo expresses optimism that with the coming in of the 12 secondary schools from the 250 which were provided by the American government will improve things in the district.
Global statistics by Plan International indicate that at least 2.5 million girls aged 15 or younger give birth each year, making pregnancy and childbirth complications to become the second highest cause of deaths for girls aged between 15 and 19.
In addition, Plan says half of pregnancies among girls aged 15–19 found in the developing countries such as Malawi are unintended, which forces over three million girls to undergo unsafe abortions, due to some regulations that criminalise abortion.
Further to that, it is believed that lack of access to sexual and reproductive health education and services is also a key factor that is causing girls to become pregnant apart from the expectations of communities on them to become mothers early.