When Ellen Tembo was selected to Mpatsa Community Day Secondary School in Nsanje, it was bittersweet for her widowed mother.
“While some parents were throwing parties for my peers, my mother appeared worried. She didn’t know where my fees would come from,” recalls the 14-year-old Form Two girl.
The woman has raised four girls and two boys single-handedly since 2015 when Ellen’s father died. The girl was six years old when her breadwinner, a civil servant, died.
Her secondary education got off to a turbulent start when she was sent back home as her mother did not pay fees on time.
The widow borrowed K20 000 from neighbours after Ellen had spent a week out of school.
“I wept because my friends kept learning while I was at home. I feared for my future. My mother did everything to keep me in school, but she had to choose between educating me and feeding my family,” says Ellen.
The fourth-born saw herself hitting a snag like her first-born sister, who failed the Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations because she was constantly forced out of school to fetch fees.
But Ellen weeps no more.
She is among 16 girls at her school on scholarships from the Spotlight Initiative funded by the European Union in partnership with the United Nations to ensure girls learn and thrive until their dreams come true.
The UN rolled out its eight-year flagship initiative to end violence against women and girls in Nkhata Bay, Mzimba, Ntchisi, Dowa and Machinga.
The Unicef scholarships benefit schoolgirls disproportionately at risk of dropping out due to poverty, teen pregnancies and child marriages. Unicef also supported the construction of a 76-bed hostel for girls prone to sexual violence due to long walks to school and created youth clubs that mentor boys to safeguard girls’ rights.
“Since I started receiving the scholarship, I work hard to achieve my dreams. I have no excuse to quit. I want to lift my mom, siblings and myself out of poverty,” says the girl aspiring to become a nurse.
The scholarships help keep poor girls in school, which headteacher Fred Kaligomba considers a safe space to safeguard girls from early pregnancies and marriages.
Each girl on the bursary received tuition, 10 notebooks, 10 exercise books, a uniform, shoes, a calculator, 10 pens, 10 pencils and six sanitary pads. Form Two and Four girls receive a top-up for examination fees.
“I thank Unicef and the Spotlight Initiative for the scholarships, which help keep disadvantaged girls in school at a time when many poor girls are forced to quit school for illegal marriages and risky sexual transactions that only put their lives and futures in danger,” he says.
The teacher says the education support has saved the girls from sexual rights violations that fuel school dropout rates, child marriages, teen pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
“Without these scholarships, most of the recipients would have dropped out of school to marry, as do most of their peers in this area where girls marry young due to widespread poverty, parental indifference, and traditional practices that appear to condone it instead of protecting children and keeping them learning until they are old enough to decide when to marry,” he states.
And the annual count of girls quitting school has dropped to seven this year from nine in 2022 and 11 in 2021 when Kaligomba arrived at Mpatsa CDSS.
“We want every girl to stay in school and achieve their dreams, so every girl saved from early pregnancy and marriage is a cause for joy to us,” says the headteacher.
The school also works with a mother group that offer children talks on the importance of education and help dropouts re-enrol. They also facilitate re-enrolment of girls rescued from marriage and idle life after falling pregnant.
Nearly half of the girls in the country marry before reaching the legal minimum marriageable age of 18, and one in three becomes a mother by their 19th birthday.
Ellen is lucky to have been selected for the scholarship after her mother opened up to the headteacher and Spotlight coordinator about the struggles to keep the girl in school.
“I now have every reason to stay in school until I can achieve my dreams and make my mother smile. The scholarship has relieved my hardship and my mom’s worries as she now uses her little income to care for my siblings,” she says.