Young Girls in Malawi Get Chance at Secondary Education / by Natalia Mroz

Published in: Raising Malawi and Millennium Villages Project

A doctor, a journalist and a banker are some of the diverse careers being pursued by ten talented girls in Mwandama Millennium Village in rural Malawi. For this group of students, the opportunity to continue their education beyond primary school has been a dream come true. Most of the girls are orphans and come from Mwandama’s poorest families, living in an environment where higher education is a luxury unaffordable to most.

In October of this year, for the first time in this community, Connect to Learn, a global initiative that provides scholarships for girls and boys in impoverished areas to attend secondary school, awarded scholarships to 50 young women in Mwandama Millennium Village. 10 of these scholarship recipients have been sponsored through a partnership with Raising Malawi, an established NGO which provides grass-roots support to Malawi’s orphans and voulnerable children since 2006. The scholarship will support the girls through four years until graduation, including school and boarding fees. In addition, Ericsson, a key partner of the Millennium Villages is helping to connect schools, clinics and people in areas where the MVP works.

Tosungire Jaime is one of the girls sponsored by Raising Malawi, and exemplifies the transformative role secondary education can play. At 19, she is much older than her classmates. This is because she was forced to drop out when she became pregnant, and has only now been able to return. She is an orphan and mother to a two year old son. Considering her difficult circumstances, Tosungire’s return to school and good results are a testimony to her strength and pride.

Tosungire says that when she got pregnant, friends and teachers were critical of her. She was very concerned because she was very poor and didn’t know how she would look after her child, let alone continue with school.

Yet, she was determined to go back. “I knew if I didn’t go back to school, I couldn’t take care of the baby.” Whilst providing for herself and her son, Tosungire borrowed books from friends to keep learning on her own. When she heard about the CTL scheme, she applied, and was accepted.

Now, she is an example to others. “When I got pregnant, a lot of people mocked me, they spoke badly about me. But when I went back to school, and passed, I have set an example. Even some of my friends who have children have gone back to school,” she says proudly.

The girls’ moving life stories illustrate some of the overwhelming obstacles, which prevent millions of girls in rural areas of Africa from progressing through school. Traditionally, educating girls was not viewed by families as a priority compared to boys. This especially in rural families where an extra pair of hands that a daughter provides at home can help a family survive. Girls shoulder the burden of household chores, including fetching water and firewood, often walking for hours a day. They look after younger siblings when parents need to tend fields or go to market to sell their produce.

Even when girls do attend school, the dropout rates are higher than that of boys. School facilities are often inadequate to provide a quality education — overcrowded classrooms, outdoor lessons interrupted by rain, and perennial teacher shortages mean that girls often don’t get the attention they need in class, and are not motivated to continue. The dropout rate gets even higher with the onset of puberty. Many are forced into early marriage, either by tradition, family financial considerations, or falling prey to early pregnancy with the associated stigma. Inadequate toilet facilities become a matter of shame for girls as they get older, and a lack of sanitary towels mean that girls miss as much as one week of class per month.

It is true that most African countries, including Malawi, have made huge inroads in recent years in increasing gender parity in primary education, which is provided free. The challenge now lies in transitioning girls to secondary education — at this point, families are faced with fees — 600 USD per year — which subsistence farmers simply cannot afford.

The Connect to Learn program provides a solution, by providing scholarships and other support to keep girls in school across the Millennium Villages in Africa. In addition to the 50 girls sponsored in Mwandama, the scheme funded 342 scholarships in East Africa this year, with funding for a further 50 girls to begin in Ruhiira Millennium Village in Uganda in January 2013. The program also focuses on improving access to learning resources in secondary schools, by implementing mobile broadband connectivity in the schools attended by scholarship recipients. In Mwandama, computers will arrive at the end of year in the two schools attended by the girls. The partners in Connect to Learn recognize the role broadband connectivity and other ICT solutions can have in scaling up access to teaching and learning resources and enabling connections and cultural exchanges with schools in the US.

Mervis Chatha, 12, one of the girls sponsored by Raising Malawi, sums up the importance of girls education espoused by the program.

“It is important for girls to go to school because when you teach a girl child, you teach the whole world,” she says. When women are educated, they are more likely than men to pass knowledge on to their children and insist on schooling. In addition, educated women can earn incomes independently from their husbands, and are more likely to spend money on essential medicines, food and other basic needs for their family.

“I want to be a journalist!” says Mervis, “I want to be represented on the screen, and people who doesn’t know me to get to know me. I wish a long lasting life to the people who are paying my school fees and boarding fees. They are providing something that I need in my life. I pray to God that they can receive blessings and a good life.”

Connect to Learn and Raising Malawi are proud to assist girls like Mervis and Tosungire achieve their dreams. During the next four years, we will continue to share updates on their progress.