Girls biking to learn

At Konzere in Chikwawa, it is not uncommon to see a teen girl with a baby saddling on her back. The sun-scorched village in Traditional Authority Ngabu personifies Malawi’s struggle to keep girls in school, with nearly a third of adolescents carrying pregnancies and half of women marrying before their 18th birthday.

However, there is a good reason Mercy Frazer regrets becoming a mother before teenage. At 22, she refuses to marry despite piling ridicule from her peers currently in wedlock.

Young and Gani hands over a bicycle to a schoolgirl

“Mentions of marriage evoke the agony I went through when I got pregnant aged 12,” she explains. “I quit school in Standard Seven in 2011 and endured the hardship from the pregnancy singlehandedly because the man denied responsibility, saying he couldn’t afford raising a baby.”

In 2012, after giving birth, Mercy went back to school and got selected to Phanda Community Day Secondary School (CDSS), almost 12 kilometres from her village. Having passed Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations last year, she has set her sights on her dream to become a teacher. She wants to become a role model for young girls at risk of marrying young because they grow up being told that marriage is everything.

Looking back, she said: “The suffering faced by my friends who married young has strengthened my desire for further education.

“Nothing can stop me. I spent years walking for two hours to get to school. Oftentimes, I arrived late, weary and sweaty. I used to miss two lessons a day because of late-coming, but I persevered.”

In 2015, Mercy was one of 12 girls at Phanda CDSS who received bicycles from Malawi Girl Guides Association to speed up their trips to school. At that time, she was completing Form One.

To the recipients, the bikes are more than just a means of transport. They  helped them learn like any other girl and eased access to an array of vital services.

 “With the bicycle, the two-hour journey took just 30 minutes and all eyes were on us. Everyone became our watchdog to ensure that we didn’t drop out again.”

In this way, the pedal work put the vulnerable girl on the path to remain in school.

In July, Magga distributed 1 00 0 bicycles to learners in Konzere Zone and Katuli in Mangochi.

This followed door-to-door fundraising activities Girl Up members in the US conducted in partnership with Jenifer Gani, from Katuli, whom UNFPA flew to Washington DC in July 2017.

She looked back: “It was never easy to source funds for the bikes. We hopped from office to another, including the Capitol, we met benevolent people as well as those who shouted at us, saying Malawians have to learn to fix their problems.

“It’s incredible that we are getting truckloads of bikes. I’m excited. You see bicycles, but I see many girls going to school. No girl must fail to go to school because schools are far away.”

According to Konzere Zone primary education advisor Gerald Pengapenga, pedaling to school lifts girls from a host of dangers lying in their way because schools remain few and far apart.

“In rural areas, bikes have become a reliable tool to ensure even the most vulnerable girls learn. Dropout rates in this area remain high because girls walk long distances and wind up into risky sexual encounters on the way to school.

Pengapenga reports that more than 100 girls in Konzere’s14 schools dropped out last academic year, with 37 quitting to marry and 29 getting pregnant.

 “This is a huge reduction. Five years ago, 99 married young and 45 got pregnant,” he says.

But Chikwawa District Council chairperson Clement Kamoto says the pace to end the two setbacks is slow.

 “The figures clearly show that we need to work harder to end child marriages and teen pregnancies. Girls should be in class, not in maternity wards,” he says.

For UNFPA country representative Young Hong, the statistics remain alarming. She states that the bicycles are just one measure to roll back the challenges, but the classrooms may be filled with teen mothers unless parents and community members take the lead in ending child marriage and teen pregnancy.

“Everyone has a role to ensure that girls do not get pregnant before they finish school. The world is changing and a girl’s life is more than just being a mother. Let her study to become somebody. They need education, education and education,” she said.

Young, a Korean lawyer, alludes to her epic rise from a poor background to the helm of the country’s UNFPA office to show how education transforms a girl’s life.

She narrates: “I come from an ordinary family and all I got was education. My father and mother ensured I got university education.

“My mother came from a family of nine, but she only had two children. If I got pregnant as a teenager, I wouldn’t be here. But I finished education, went to college, I work with UNFPA and pay my parents an allowance every month. If you educate a girl, it pays back.”

Magga president Susan Phukaphuka thanked UNFPA and Girl Up for the bicycles.

“Don’t rush into marriage,” she implored. “I come from the neighbouring Nsanje District, but I work in Lilongwe. Nothing is impossible with education; if you work harder, your dreams will come true.”

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