They were in school. Then they quit. Got married. Had babies. But now they are back in classroom.
In a nutshell, that is the tale of two girls: Lufina Chikakuda, 18, currently in Form One, and Linly Ngwata, 19, in Form Three.
By getting married, Lufina thought she was solving her problems, only to regret later that she had worsened them.
“When I fell pregnant, I was told I needed to get married and so I did. But what I experienced in marriage is not what I had in mind.
“I slept on an empty stomach. We were two uneducated young people living in a complicated world and raising a baby. The equation wasn’t adding up and so when the community approached me to go back to school, I did not hesitate,” she says.
After three months of marriage, Lufina went back to school. When asked if she still meets the man she was married to, she responds: “I do meet him. He wanted to try his nonsense, but I told him to go away. He wasted my time. He enticed me with money, yet he was just an uneducated person who cannot take me anywhere in life.”
Linly, too, suffered Lufina’s predicament: she fell pregnant, got married and stayed there for at least two years. Recalling the events, Linly was all in tears.
“All the people I was usually with in school, had boyfriends and they lived a better life. Their men provided them with not only money for food, but also notebooks, uniforms and writing materials and so I tried and the next thing, I ended up getting married to him,” she says.
Linly added that the man was abusive. However, she explains that when the community approached her to get back to school, she accepted, but was surprised the community gave her conditions. She was told to show a commitment of raising tuition fees amounting to K7 500 on her own before they could assist.
In her narration, she travelled a distance of 200 kilometers to search for a job. She returnedafter five months with K5 000, though short of K2 500. Her grandmother gave her the deficit and she was re-admitted.
The story of the two girls is just a tip of an ice berg of what it means to be a girl not just in their home district of Mchinji, but across the country.
Research indicates that some girls are married off before they attain the legal age of 18 by the parents in search of grandchildren.
When asked about their biggest challenge getting back to school, the girls underlined transition from marriage to classroom as paramount.
Linly admits that he could spend the whole lesson without grasping anything. While, Lufina says her brain could just shutdown.
“It was not easy and it has not been easy up to now, but the head teacher has been of help and also the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment [Gewe] project through their implementing partners who visit our homes just to see how we are doing. They have even asked some girls to help us with lessons. In a way, we have been brought back to interact with our friends, thereby removing the stigma,” says Lufina.
And Linly chips in.
“Some problems are just physical, like my breasts would swell, and my whole back would become painful, but I could just go into the ladies, squeeze some milk out and got back in class. I know my choice is not an easy one, but I know that education is the only option I have if I want a decent life,” explains Linly.
The Malawi Government—through the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare in conjunction with UNFPA, with EU as the main donor—is the one implementing the Gewe project.
The project aims to promote gender equality and women empowerment with support from State and non-state institutions to accelerate national development.
Headteacher for Takondwa Community Day Secondary School (CDSS), where over 17 children are being supported through the Gewe project, Bernard Chikuse, says children who have been re-admitted, especially girls usually perform at an average. He, however, said that because most of them have made a choice to get back to school, there is hope to improve their performance.
He adds most children are forced to marry due to peer pressure and not necessarily being married off by their parents.
“In the many cases I have interacted with, the main problem is peer pressure. They are enticed by men, hence, they fall prey.
“And when they marry, most of them come back complaining. Since government, through UNFPA, is intensifying getting children back to school, we feel this is a good opportunity to encourage girls especially to go to school,” he explains.
According to Chikuse, most of the girls travel longer than 120 km just to get to school. He notes that this is another problem which needs to be addressed if girls are to be kept in school for longer.
Programme officer for Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom)—an implementing partner for (Gewe) project—Michael Tcheula says, through the project, communities have become aware of their roles in helping the girl child go to school and get an education.
“We have mother groups which move in communities helping girls to get back to school.
“They were trained by UNFPA and equipped with the right skills for sustainability purposes. They are also the ones who are paying school fees for the 17 girls. We have girl groups, boys groups and men groups.
“All these groups are working towards helping one another and encouraging each other to reduce poverty levels.
If people’s mindsets are changed towards an idea, then the world can become a better place,” he says.