Pushing forward the last girl

On a sunny day, choruses of adolescent girls welcome you to Nkata in Malombe, a rural setting in Mangochi District.

For the community, these songs, with painful memories and growing relief intertwined to depict the gratitude of one-time neglected teenagers, mark a new dawn.

There are 35 girls who have been under instruction for nine months to revive their academic ambitions. Their singing unravels a girl child’s struggle to access education in remote parts of Malawi.

A learner solves mathematics in Mangochi

Standing before them is their literacy instructor Mercy Chirambo. There is no brick-and-mortar classroom, but a makeshift shack made of poles and a grass thatch.

The girls’ literacy class underway prepares school dropouts to re-enroll in their nearest school.

“We were a forgotten group, but we look to the future with hope again,” says Zainab Rabson, 16.

The return of Zainab’s group, aged between 10 and 18, is part of the global push to ensure every girl learns and achieves her potential—in line with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for not one to be left behind.

These shy girls, who quit primary school over two years ago, were admittedly feeling too old to re-enroll.

“I dropped out of school in Standard One due to poverty and long distances to Namaswa Primary School,” explains Halima Sumane, 18.

The school is almost five kilometres away from Nkata and Amasi in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chowe.

The long walks keep many children—especially learners in junior classes, who are mostly aged below 10—out of school.

Halima is one of the dropouts determined to to re-enroll. A mother of two daughters, she is a second wife to a man who migrated to South Africa in search of better jobs.

Early marriages haunt many girls in the country, with government and the United Nations estimating that one in two girls marry before their 18th birthday.

Mangochi is among the worst hit districts.

In her class, Halima is the oldest pupil and a class monitor.

Adolescence Girls Literacy Plus (Aglit+) operates 168 literacy centres in Mangochi, Dedza and Salima districts. Each district has 56 centres in four zones. Each centre recruits 35 dropouts a year. These girls, aged 10—25, are taught how to read, write and count.

The classes run from 2pm to 5pm. This is my second intake and it is working. Within nine months, the learners are able to write, read and do simple mathematics before they are allowed to go back to school,” says Chirambo.

The literacy instructor complements her classes with motivational talks and mindset change.

Eleven out of 35 pupils in Chirambo’s first intake are back in primary schools and are coping well.

Amina Yahaya, now at Namaswa Primary School is one of them.

“The literacy classes helped catch up. The future looks bright,” she says.

Namaswa deputy head teacher Benson Mwandira explained how they assist them to cope with the transition from functional literacy class to formal education.

“They were learning few things. Upon being assessed, they were located different classes. Now they have many subjects and it is not easy to adapt. However, many are doing well,” he says.

Currently, Malombe Zone has 35 adolescent girls who are back in school.

Aglit+, funded by Unicef, supports locals to champion operations of the centres.

Nkata Literacy Centre secretary Blessings Sinoya and her five-member committee rallied locals to construct the shelter where the redeemed dropouts learn.

They contributed money for roofing materials for  the shelter with plastic sheeting and grass.

The villagers also identify learners.

Aglit+ programme manager Wilson Liwonde envisions the initiative giving adolescent girls a second chance to education.

“These are girls who lost hope to attain education and achieve their dreams. We giving them another chance,” he says.

The literacy centres prepare the girls to rejoin primary education at a level they can afford. It also imparts livelihood, nutrition and entrepreneurial skills to the learners.

“We work with government to identity areas with low literacy levels and high school dropouts. Those who cannot rejoin primary schools are linked with government livelihood programmes to make living,” says Liwonde.

The three-year-old programme has benefitted almost 15 000 girls.

However, Sinoya wants the intake increased.

“We have thousands of girls rotting in the homes and we wish the intake was doubled. Besides, the boys are not part of the programme, but they also form a large population of school dropouts,” he explains.

Liwonde says lessons from the inaugural project will shape the next phase.

Unicef youth and adolescent programmes officer Patrick Chakoloma says they are planning to develop a functional literacy curriculum to run parallel with the formal education system to address concerns raised by Chirambo and keep all children in school.

“Once we develop the in-school and out-of-school programme, we will reduce the number of out-of-school youths,” he says. n

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