She said growing up as a girl in Ngabu and being raised by a granny with so much lacking at home wasn’t easy for her. Often times her school supplies ran out and if not for the motivation from well wishers she would be out of school.
According to the 2014 Research on Early Marriages of Girls in Primary School conducted by Theater for Change, it established that Chikwawa is one of the hotspots in the country for early marriages. The findings indicated that girls in Chikwawa were getting married on average between the ages of 15-16 years.
A similar study by a Malawian NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed that half of women aged 20 to 24 years were married or in union before they were 18. This in a way meant giving up their opportunity to be educated for an early marriage.
“Human Rights Watch documented cases in which child marriage exposed girls to gender-based violence, including domestic and sexual violence. Data on girls who drop out due to marriage and pregnancy is not comprehensive. However, available data shows that between 2010 and 2013 at national level, 27,612 girls in primary and 4,053 girls in secondary schools dropped out due to marriage. During the same period, another 14,051 primary school girls and 5,597 secondary school girls dropped out because they were pregnant,” reads the report in part.
District social welfare officer for Chikwawa Rosemary Mahata said most of the households in Chikwawa are poor and some ultra poor that they cant support the girl child education.
“It is a fact that most of the families from which these girls are coming from are ultra poor and that’s the main reason why they engage in early marriages, you can imagine in this educational zone only, over 123 girls dropped from school last year,” said Mahata.
Against this background Stephanos Foundation, a Christian organisation focusing on children, rolled out a project in 2014 to campaign for the girl child education in Chikwawa.
In collaboration with a group of Canadian high school and university students it implemented a project called ‘Goat For Girls’ (G4G) where some households were selected and the project beneficiaries were given two female goats each to pass on to others when they multiply.
Janine Koert (right) and fellow Canadian students supporting G4G
One of the Canadian students who pioneered the project, Janine Koert, was very alarmed when she came for vacation in Chikwawa prior to 2014 to find her age mates (girls) with a child or two after dropping out of school. The idea to distribute goats was arrived at after noting that goats multiply quickly and after selling the proceeds can be used to meet educational expenses for the girl child.
“We identified that poverty has a big toll on the girl child. If her family cannot afford her school fees then she’s in trouble. So lack of school fees and on the other hand the pressure from boys all these impedes her success on education. So when we interact with them we encourage them to say no to boys and motivate them to aim high, while teaching them some skills for survival,” said Koert.
An earlier visit to Alfonso’s home revealed the impact the G4G Initiative is having on girl child education. Fofia Alfonso, grandmother to Caroline, whose only occupation is subsistence farming with no other options for cash generation acknowledged that she wouldn’t manage to see her granddaughter, finish her secondary education if not for the G4G Project.
Alfonso, now a form four graduate through G4G Project
She said: “You heard from her earlier. She would like to be a nurse someday. I don’t have any other investment other than these goats and surely I wouldn’t manage to pay her school fees close to K10,000. When we sell one or two of these goats, we meet some of the pressing household needs in addition to her school expenses.”
Investigation by MBC Online shows that day scholars in secondary schools around TA Ngabu’s area pay less than K10,000 (US$ 13.80) per school term and boarding students have to dig deeper in their pockets as fees hover around K60, 000 – K80,000 ( US$ 82.78 – US$ 110.37). On the other hand live mature goats on the local market fetch around K20,000 – K30,000 (US$ 27.59 – US$ 41.39). So the goats have really changed the narrative on girl child education in this area.
Traditional Authority Ngabu acknowledged the high school dropout rate of girls in his area and said he engaged parents on a serious note to ensure girls are attending school failure of which he will be invoking by laws to punish those not adhering.
The G4G project among other interventions uses role modeling. Kholiwe Kuyokwa, who also had a taste of girl child education challenges when growing up in Rumphi District but now is a proud graduate in education from African Bible College, had this to say:
Kholiwe Kuyokwa: 'Girls need motivation to progress in life'
“The girls need motivation. This is a rural setup with little or no inspiration at all. So I was encouraging them not to sink deep on their challenges but focus their energies on the brighter future ahead. Actually the future is in their hands. They just need to work extra hard. If a girl is educated she becomes self reliant and of much help to her family and the nation as a whole.”
In an interview with this publication, Minister of Education, Science and Technology, William Susuwere Banda, said the Ministry is aware of the plight of the girl child and has lined up a number of interventions for the sake of improving girl child education including formation of mother groups.
According to Unicef, the Mothers' Group comprises a group of women from the community tasked with the responsibility of coaxing girls to return to school. The idea is that if parents participate in educating their children, they are most likely to keep their kids in school.
“As a Ministry we have established mother groups in schools to ensure that child marriages are checked. However we depend on district education managers, primary education advisors and headteachers to ensure that the mother groups are active.
“Another important aspect is that we have a policy that allows the girls to return to school. The policy is called "Re-admission policy.
We are also building girls hostels in community day secondary schools to ensure that girls do not walk long distances to school daily,” said Banda.
In 2017, Government amended the age of a child in Malawi from 16 to 18 years old, this step in the process outlaw child marriages.
On his part Executive Director for Stephanos Foundation, Clifford Kuyokwa, said to date the intervention by his organisation has rescued over 280 girls in Chikwawa who would otherwise be school dropouts and enter marriage at a tender age.
Clifford Kuyokwa: 'The G4G Project has a positive impact'
“This part of Chikwawa prior to this intervention had a high number of girls not completing their secondary school. You heard from the Chikwawa, District Social Welfare Officer, Magret Mahata, saying over 123 girls dropped from school in the previous academic year, the situation was far much worse before. The coming in of Stephanos Foundation has changed the landscape.
“Today we are proud that 280 girls who are in this project are still in school. Last year the first group completed their secondary school education and this time around we are witnessing another set finishing their form four studies. To us this is an achievement,” said Kuyokwa.
A total of K32.5 million (60,000 Canadian dollars) has been committed to the project. This is raised by the students in Canada.
Stephanos Foundation joins the ranks of other NGOs who champion girl child education, such as Care International, which seeks to unlock the potential of girls and women through education and other economic interventions.
Care believes when more women work, economies grow.
“An increase in female labour force participation—or a reduction in the gap between women’s and men’s labour force participation—results in faster economic growth,” reads part of its conviction from the organisation’s website.
Its recent survey showed that 45 percent of adolescent girls in the country dropout of school in primary school but if they are motivated to attain secondary education the dropout late drastically reduces to four percent.
Stephanos is running the project in three traditional authorities in Chikwawa; Maseya, Khoko and Ngabu.
Alfonso’s dream to become a nurse hangs on mindset change from her community and continued support by Stephanos Foundation and well wishers to meet her higher educational needs.
The G4G Project remains one of the channels for relaying resources from Canada to trim teen marriages in Chikwawa.