On September 16 2019 four teen girls arrived at Masambanjati Primary School in Thyolo South—two years after they dropped out due to pregnancy.
The four—Margaret Magola, 15, Tamara Kamoyo, 16, Tiyanjane Paulo, 17 and Leah Benjamin, 18, smiled as they watched their fellow learners and teachers welcome them.
“We felt happy to be back in school. The warm welcome we received moved us to tears of joy. We could not wait to sit in class and learn,” recalls Magola, who became pregnant in 2015 while in Standard Seven at the same school.
She was 13, an age dangerous to be pregnant. But it happened. An affair with a boy from her own village, Changata, ended in pregnancy and eventual dropout.
For two years, she stayed home, nursing the baby. By this time, she had given up hope of going back to school. But the light of hope shone in the night of her despair in August 2019.
“A mother group arrived home that evening. They persuaded me to go back to school, saying I was allowed to go back to school after giving birth,” says Magola.
She says she thought about the idea—on one hand she wanted to go back to school, but on another, she did not. Her child was two and would miss her care, she says.
However, a week to the school opening day—September 2019, her teachers visited her. They, too, convinced her to rejoin school. They said the school would be allowing her to go back home during break time to breastfeed her baby. She agreed with the terms.
Her three colleagues share the same story, although they differ in reasons that led to their pregnancies. Some of them fell into men’s trap due to poverty while for others it was due to peer pressure.
Nevertheless, their common denominator was that all of them became pregnant while in school and that it nearly cost their future.
“We are now wiser. We can resist men when they make advances to us,” explains Kamoyo, who wants to become a teacher.
The four represent several learners who have gone back to school in the district and the country at large after becoming pregnant under the readmission policy.
When such girls are back in school, teachers integrate them into the learner community without conditions.
Interestingly, they are all in Standard Eight, a coincidence that has cemented their bond. The girls are inseparable—when coming to school and going back home. They say it is better that way, for unity is strength.
Challenges readmitted girls face
The girls’ excitement ends just few days after going back to school. They realise they are a misfit among other learners due to their mother-tag, which sometimes attracts sneering remarks.
Besides, they also lack learning materials as poverty that saw them out of school remains unsolved. For the weak-hearted, the challenges have ended up taking them back home, for good.
But some schools have quickly moved to solve the challenges to create a friendly learning environment. In situations where the readmitted learners lack learning materials, schools provide them through School Improvement Plan (SIP) fund government allocates to school every academic year.
Masambanjati Primary School head teacher Humphrey Matabwa says he believes in the right to education and that readmitted girls should learn in an environment that enables them to excel.
“So, we discourage other learners from mocking them because they are mothers. Whenever we spot a needy learner, the school provides school uniform and materials through SIP,” he says.
Matabwa, however, says the magic to make them stay lies in motivating them.
“Together with mother groups, we tell them to forget about their present poverty and look at a larger picture—which is their future,” he says.
The motivation to readmitted girls is seen as fuel that pushes them through the dense forest of education touted as a gateway from chronic poverty.
Initiatives to reduce drop out
Just like other primary schools, Masambanjati experiences dropout of girls due to poverty, pregnancies or just truancy. In 2017/18 academic year, 23 girls dropped out. In 2018/19 academic year, 14 left school—four because of pregnancy.
Such is the situation in other schools in the area such as Malosa, Mwalo and Chikumba.
According to a 2018 Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) report, there were 5 187 634 learners in primary schools in the country in the 2017/18 academic year from which 2 622 290 were girls. From this number, 83 913 girls dropped out of school on a number of reasons.
To reverse the situation in Thyolo, Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom), with funding from Rise Up, introduced Empowering Girls through Education (EGE) project in 2018 in T/A Changata as an advocacy intervention targeting challenges teen mothers and other girls who dropped out of school experience when they return to school.
Mwalo Primary School head teacher Edward Kanyama says Creccom trained teachers, parents and traditional leaders how to handle girls who dropped out of school.
“We tapped skills that we apply in schools to ensure readmitted girls do not quit school,” he says.
Moving a step further in ending drop-outs, Creccom championed the establishment of by-laws in the areas.
Group village head Chikumba has pledged to punish parents who marry off children.
“We have agreed that such parents pay a goat as punishment,” he says.
Creccom programme manager Linice Sanga is optimistic the project will achieve its goals.
She explains: “We have so far interacted with a number of girls from the area through girls’ camps where they were able to voice out their challenges.
“In return, we equipped them with skills to overcome the challenges such as how they can avoid falling prey to men.”
Thyolo district social welfare assistant Brian Namulueso admitted that gender-based violence (GBV), including child marriages, were a leading cause of drop-outs among girls in the district.
“However, the district is on course to reducing GBV due to awareness campaigns we conduct,” he explains.
Understanding readmission policy
Achieving and sustaining gender parity in primary school has been a long term policy. Since independence in 1964 Malawi Government, along with development partners, the private sector and civil society organisations has deployed policies and strategies to promote gender parity in primary school education culminating in the declaration of free primary education in 1994.
Over the years, investment has been made in curriculum adaptation, pedagogical and policy reform and strategic planning to bring girls into education.
Malawi has adopted policies such as school fees waivers for non-repeating girls; readmission after pregnancy, gender appropriate curriculum and others.
Former Malawi National Examinations Board (Maneb) executive director Roy Hauya argues that readmission policy was perhaps the most radical pursued by several other countries in the region to achieve open access and equity for all children, particularly girls.
“However, it has to be said that the policy has not been effective for a number of reasons. The policy has been criticised by practising teachers and education managers that it is a top-bottom ‘imposition driven by donors’ which does not engage stakeholders adequately for input,” he contends.
He says actors in primary and secondary education sector believe that the policy dissemination was weak and inadequate to bring along those who would be shouldered with the responsibility of implementation and oversight.
“The result is that research suggests that few teachers and education managers understand the policy well, especially with regard to the process of withdrawing pregnant girls and actual procedures for readmission,” Hauya opines.
Back to the basics
For all its inadequacies, however, readmission policy has accorded girls a second chance to get educated. With that rare opportunity, other girls are advancing to secondary schools.
At Kasupe Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in the district, eight girls who were readmitted after dropping out of school due to pregnancies passed the 2018 Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examination.
Kasupe CDSS head teacher Liston Mpheza waxed lyrical about the girls’ success, saying given an opportunity, girls can also excel in education.
With books in their hands, the four girls at Masambanjati are hopeful of making it to secondary school as they feel motivated by the feat of girls from Kasupe, 25 kilometres from their school. “We cannot wait for this year’s Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education [PSLCE] examinations to show the world that we can make the most of our second chance,” says Benjamin.