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Early marriages affecting girls' education

LILONGWE, Malawi- Four years ago, Chapita primary school in Salima was faced with a huge task of making sure that young girls stay in school. Every school term would see many girls dropping out due to either teen pregnancy or early marriage.

According to Isaac Zatha, a head teacher at the school, a considerable number of boys were also dropping out but the trend was more worrying for girls. He adds that the proximity of the community to Lake Malawi also contributed to students dropping out of school.

Isaac Zatha, head teacher at Chapita primary school explaining how the school has managed to deploy strategies to keep girls in school. ©UNFPA/Malawi

“With money from fishing freely flowing around the communities, the lure of a better life after marriage was too strong to resists for the young girls,” says Zatha adding, “Every month, I would receive a report of a girl dropping out and by the end of the term, the numbers were significant.”

During the 2013/2014 school calendar, Chapita primary school recorded four pregnancies. The trend got worse in 2014/2015 as five more girls got pregnant and dropped out of school. The following year, the school recorded four pregnancies.

Changing community behaviours on child marriage

“The community leadership seemed to have resigned to the fact that it was okay for girls to marry early. Initiation ceremonies were sprouting all over the place even during school time.

“I knew for this to change, it had to start with the community itself accepting that girl child education was as important as that of boys,” says the head teacher.

When all seemed lost in Chapita, the United Nations, with funding from the Government of Norway, introduced the Joint Programme of Girls Education (JPGE) at the school. The programme, implemented jointly by UNFPA, UNICEF and WFP seeks to reduce poverty by improving quality education and basic life skills for adolescent girls in and out of school in Dedza, Mangochi and Salima.

While the focus is on girls, the programme also recognizes the importance of the involvement of boys as they also have a role to play in ensuring that girls remain in schools.

“With support from the UN, we have managed to set up different structures in the community and as well as at the school, all with a common goal of making sure that the girl child stays in school,” Zatha explains.

“For example, UNFPA is among others, focusing on comprehensive sexuality education and WFP with the school feeding programme. These activities are very important as they are addressing some of the key issues, which were leading girls to drop out from school.” 

Mothers’ group to the rescue

Another critical component of the programme is training mothers’ groups on counselling and in local advocacy on girl child education. These groups have been key in tracking girls’ who drop out of school in their respective villages and convincing them to resume their studies.

Chapita mothers’ group has played an important role to keep girls in school. ©UNFPA/Malawi

“Ours is a difficult job,” says Eunice Mphambo, chairperson for Chapita mothers’ group. “Sometimes we are chased by parents who don’t agree with our work. But we still keep on approaching them until they understand that what we are doing is for the good of their child.”

Eunice, says she didn’t go far with her education but her passion to see young girls do better in life motivates her to work hard.  She has been a member of a mothers’ group for the past 10 years.

“Sometimes people question my commitment to work all these years for free but I can’t express how I feel every time we get a girl back to school.”

“One of the girls we helped to withdraw from early marriage whilst in primary school is now doing her high school. This year, she will write her senior exams. I am hopeful she will do well and inspire more girls in this community to work hard in school.”

Recently, the mothers’ group also managed to convince, Laureen a 15-year-old girl, to return to school after she had dropped out opting to get married. Laureen, had eloped with her boyfriend for three days and, when her mother successfully convinced her to come back home, she had lost interest in school.

“I thought dropping out of school would give me more time to be with my boyfriend. But the mothers’ group helped me realize that I was making a big mistake,” says Laureen, adding, “From that day, I committed to go back to school and work hard so that I can help my mother out of poverty.”

Supporting girls’ education

And this isn’t the only success the group has had over the years. As part of Chapita primary school management committee, they have contributed to the school registering an increase in girls’ enrolment from 751 in 2019 to 803 in 2020. The school has also not recorded zero pregnancy and drop out for girls since 2017/ 2018 school calendar.

Young- We can reach more girls

UNFPA Malawi Representative Young Hong says the phenomenal success of Chapita primary school in keeping girls in school is a model that needs to be replicated across the country to ensure that more girls stay in school.

“For a school like Chapita to go for two straight years without a girl dropping out or getting pregnant is an achievement that deserves recognition. As UNFPA, we are ready to talk to our donors and the Government to discuss the possibility of scaling up such good practices as those at Chapita primary school.

With enough resources, we can reach out to more districts and ensure that we have many more girls benefitting and going to school,” she says.

By Joseph Scott, Communications Analyst