Writings on the wall welcome visitors to Mpatsa Community Day Secondary School’s new girls hostel in Nsanje.
“Make child protection part of education,” reads a poster at the entrance to the 76-bed facility built under the Spotlight Initiative funded by the European Union through the United Nations.
The hostel has created a safe space for girls at risk of sexual violence fuelled by long travels to school.
Around 2.30pm, Brenda Matiyasi, one of the first 14 occupants, was seen studying science in a dining area after a siesta.
The 17-year-old Form One girl has shrugged off long school trips, a common foe to girls’ education in Malawi.
Until recently, she had to walk 16km from the foot of Mpepe Hill to Mpatsa Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) when a borrowed bicycle was unavailable.
“I now walk just about the length of a football field to get to class. The trip used to take two hours when our neighbour’s bike was busy,” she recounts.
Brenda feels lucky as she now uses the time saved to study for the day’s lessons.
From 6.30pm to 9pm, the girls in the boarding facility gather for daily studies.
Brenda narrates: “I no longer wake up as early as 4am to do household chores and prepare for the school trip.
“Previously, I used to depart home around 5am to get to school before the first class that started at 7.30am, but I often got to class late and was so exhausted. I was dozing off instead of following the lesson,” Brenda narrates.
And more draining was the agony of walking or biking home hungry in the scorching sunshine.
“I was constantly harassed by old men who offered foodstuff and other gifts to lure me into sexual relationships and boys who were touching our sensitive parts,” she recalls.
Brenda says the hostel provides a safe sanctuary for girls to learn, study hard, and dare to dream big.
“The hostel protects my dream of becoming a nurse. Since I get to class with a fresh brain, I’m eager to learn and easily grasp what teachers have prepared for us,” she explains.
Mpatsa CDSS headteacher Fred Kaligomba says the hostel has made lives learning and easier for resident schoolgirls.
He says: “Some of the girls here travel seven to 15km on bushy roads, constantly exposing them to sexual advances from perverted men and boys. This had to end,” he says.
“The girls are safe, punctual and motivated to learn. Their class attendance, concentration and performance are improving.”
The boarding girls live under the care of matron Beatrice Dovu. The mother of five envisions her three daughters, still in primary school, utilising the hostel if it is well-cared for.
She explains: “I protect the girls like their mother and encourage them to concentrate on learning because sex and marriage can wait.
“I ensure everyone wakes up by 5am to clean the hostel area, tidy themselves up, take breakfast, and leave for school assembly by 6.30am.”
When classes are over, Dovu stands at the entrance to ensure no one is left behind. She locks the door at 6pm and opens it at 6am, ensuring everyone attends the mandatory evening study sessions until 9pm when they go to bed.
The girls confide in the go-to motherly figure and Patricia Tchapo, the school’s sole female teacher.
The girls discuss with them inner secrets, including challenges with menstrual periods, peer pressure and other topics they cannot safely discuss with peers.
“I ensure the girls are always safe, which was lacking when some rented houses in villages surrounding the school. The unregulated self-boarding only exposes some girls to risky sexual activities that fuelled school dropout rates, teen pregnancies, child marriages and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV,” Dovu recalls.
The hostel was officially opened in November 2022 by the then Minister of Gender Patricia Kaliati.
Listening to the news on the radio, some parents of six at Miseufolo in Chikwawa district decided their daughter was safer swapping the long bike ride to Makande CDSS for Mpatsa.
“When my parents and I first learned of the girls’ hostel, we all said the same thing: It was time I said goodbye to long trips to school that left me at the mercy of some notorious young men who waylaid me and fondled my sensitive parts,” narrates the 15-year-old Form One learner,” says Ellen Christopher, a third-born in a family of four girls and two boys.
Ellen arrived at Mpatsa CDSS in January 2023, when the hostel welcomed its first intake.
“Here, I study in peace whenever I want. Unlike at home, we have three meals daily, an uninterrupted water supply, electricity, and decent rooms with beds and mattresses. This is a first in my life,” she explains.
The Spotlight Initiative is underway in Nsanje, Nkhata Bay, Mzimba, Ntchisi, Dowa, and Machinga to end violence against women and girls.
The UN flagship initiative to combat gender-based violence empowers girls to identify and report any form of violence.
Ellen’s roommate, Agnes Mbeleko, arrived from Nyamadzere CDSS near Nsanje town. She wants to be a soldier to inspire her three sisters that “girls can do everything that men do.”
“Now I can achieve my dreams because I get to class on time and study without worrying about chores,” says the girl who studying hard to break into the top five.