Sherif Nkhata, a Standard Seven pupil at Thanula Primary School in Traditional Authority (T/A) Timbiri, Nkhata Bay is not happy that at least 3 000 pupils drop out of school every year in the district.
With almost 85 000 primary school learners in the district, the 3 000 represents about 3.5 percent, which he says is still too high and must be checked immediately.
Sherif is chairperson of the Learners’ Council, a grouping of pupils established to find solutions to various challenges pupils face by reporting to relevant authorities for action, but also provide advisory services.
“Every child must go to school, and must remain in school. Education is the future of our areas, so if those many drop out, what is the future of their areas then?” he wonders.
But this figure, according to Beatrice Chirwa, the District Education Management Information System (Demis) officer at the district education manager’s office, is a reduction from 15 percent (about 12 750) a few years ago.
Sherif says most pupils drop out due to lack of support from parents, teenage pregnancies and early marriages, being forced to concentrate on fishing, but also high levels of poverty.
Further, he says schools do not have necessary infrastructure for learning, but also some pupils drop out because of lack of porridge.
So, the Learners’ Council, which Sherif chairs, is part of the Safe Schools Project being run by ActionAid Malawi (AAM), and funded by Unicef to a tune of K255 622 877.
The project aims at reducing violence against boys and girls in targeted schools, through empowerment of boys and girls transformation, effective linkages with communities and more effective referral pathways.
Besides Nkhata Bay, where it is implemented in 13 primary schools and two community day secondary schools, the project is also implemented in Mzimba, Lilongwe, Dedza and Machinga.
The project, which started in 2015, also places complaint boxes in schools, where pupils report cases of violence in communities.
Already, in Nkhata Bay, statistics from AAM show that 105 cases have been reported, where 22 relate to sexual violence, 37 are physical, 14 emotional and 32 relate to neglect by parents and guardians.
Six girls have also been withdrawn from early marriages and are back in school.
Says Sherif: “Under our Council, we discuss the rights as well as responsibilities of learners. There are times when we meet to discuss issues that affect us and we take resolutions to relevant authorities.”
The young leader says his council also discovered that most pupils abscond lessons because of hunger.
“We sat down with our matron and head teacher on how best we can deal with this problem. Through the head teacher, we agreed to come up with a soya garden so that the school starts preparing porridge.
In conjunction with the Child Protection Committee, Sherif says his council has also visited children who dropped out of school, and 25 of them are now back in school.
This, he says, is being done in conjunction with the area’s Child Protection Committee.
“We will also visit those still in homes so that they get back to school. Besides, when we meet as pupils, we emphasise the need to display good behaviour both at school and home, and the evils of things such as child marriages and teenage pregnancies,” he adds.
He further says the council is now lobbying for desks at the school, and fruits of the lobby are already evident.
“It is a problem, especially for girls. There are no desks for everyone, so we asked the school committee to look into this. They have started doing the job, but we need more help on desks,” pleads Sherif.
Another member the council, George Mhone, in Standard Five, says they are trying to tell parents and guardians evils of sending them for fishing errands or to work in gardens during school time.
His counterpart, Hanwell Mhone adds that the idea of a council is of great importance, because it serves not just as a tool for learning, but also challenges ills in society.
Head teacher at the school, Pascal Mwenda, agrees with the learners. He says the council decided to come up with the soya garden as one way of reducing sicknesses among learners that come due to malnutrition.
“This is an area where many learners get married early, so the council is helping to reduce that problem. At the moment, one girl aged 14 just got married and we are planning to withdraw her from the marriage,” he says.
Secretary for the Child Protection Committee in the area, Kwenda Nyirenda, says their mission is to ensure that all children between six and 18 years remain in school.
“We have a complaints section, which meets frequently to look at challenges that our children face in school and homes. We are now planning public meetings in all villages to educate parents and guardians on the rights of children,” he says.
One major issue haunting children, according to Nyirenda, is the culture of silence, where most of them do not report atrocities to relevant authorities for fear of reprisals from their parents or guardians.
“You find a child that is being beaten frequently at home or school, or being defiled, but does not want to tell other people to help. So, our mission is to let the children know that they should not suffer in silence,” he adds.
Even T/A Timbiri acknowledges that his area commits many violent activities against children, as such, interventions are required to end the vices.
He observes that most parents marry off their children in search for money to men who travel to Tanzania and South Africa.
“When they see someone bringing a mattress, they think he would make a good husband and good son-in-law. They assume that marrying off their girls means they have found easy money for their basic needs,” observes the T/A.
He asks parents and guardians who did not go to school not to slacken, but develop a spirit of creating a learned generation.
He also blames the police for releasing on baile suspects of defilement and rape, saying this is demoralising.
To this, Nkhata Bay police officer-in-charge Rhoda Lemani says she ensures that perpetrators of violence face the long arm of the law.
“It is sad that some men enjoy destroying young girls’ future through defilement, why not go for older women with whom they can amicably agree on conjugal issues?” she wonders.
Lemani also warns communities against taking the law into their hands when dealing with criminal cases, advising them that they have no mandate to handle such cases.
ActionAid Malawi project officer for Nkhata Bay, Thomas Moyo, whose institution is implementing the Safe Schools Project, observes that violence on children can result in increasing antisocial behaviour and aggression.
“So what we are doing is ensuring that girls are empowered to say ‘no’ to early sex and marriage, and defend themselves against violence; and also that boys are transformed and are taking part in protecting girls,” he says.
Actually, a latest Unicef report, released late last year, shows that two out of three children in Malawi—some as young as a year old—are experiencing violence often by those entrusted to take care of them.
The 2017 report titled ‘A Familiar Face: Violence in the lives of children and adolescent,’ paints a disturbing picture and establishes that local children are experiencing violence across all stages of childhood and in all places.
Signed by Unicef Malawi representative Johannes Wedenig, the report reads in part:
“The harm inflicted on children in Malawi is truly worrying. Very young and helpless children, from as early as one-year-old are being disciplined violently while adolescent girls and boys are forced into unwanted sexual acts.
“This is happening in both urban and rural areas with long term devastating impact on their social, physical and mental development.”
A 2013 Violence against Children and Young Women Survey (VACS) survey report—the first in Malawi—shows that one out of five females and one out of seven males in Malawi have experienced at least one incident of sexual abuse prior to the age of 18 years.
It states: “In addition, almost half of all females and two-thirds of males experienced physical violence prior to 18 years, and approximately one-fourth to one-fifth experienced emotional violence. Nearly one-fourth of all children experienced multiple forms of violence.”
Led by Unicef and published by the Government of Malawi’s Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, the report recommends increased safe, stable and nurturing relationships between children and their parents and caregivers but also developed life skills in children and adolescents.
The report also recommends change of cultural and social norms that support violence and reducing violence through victim identification, care and support programmes.
For Sherif and his friends, the Learners’ Council seems to be working, maybe it is the way to go in directly involving the young ones in dealing with problems the face on a daily basis.