For Grace Robert, 2019 was a year to forget.
The 15-year-old, from Kalonga Village located almost 40 kilometres north west of Lilongwe City, dropped out in Form Two when her parents migrated to Mzimba to work in tobacco estates.
Abandoned, Grace and her siblings survived on piecework, hardly earning enough for her tuition at Kalonga Community Day Secondary School.
“Our parents have never visited us ever since. We had to be strong. Being the oldest, I have to work like a donkey to feed my siblings,” she says.
Every morning, the trio goes door-by-door searching for work that earns K 1 000 on a good day.
“Life is tough, but we have to adjust,” says the young breadwinner.
Grace’s siblings are still in primary school but the chance to remain in school until their dreams come true is slim.
“We have relatives, but they have families to take care of. Often, we sleep on an empty stomach,” she explains.
Grace regrets her quitting school, but says she will do everything to ensure her siblings go to secondary school—“even university”—so that they can lift themselves out of poverty.
“Our parents are alive, but that responsibility is now in my hands. If my siblings complete their education, we will no longer live like orphans” she states.
Salome Chindoko, child protection worker in Traditional Authority (T/A) Masula, says the number of girls and boys dropping out of school in the rural setting is high.
“Most parents do not seem to care about their children’s education. I have talked to several parents to avert this problem in the area, but not much is changing” she explains.
However, girls are disproportionately affected by rampant dropout rates estimated at 20 000 every year.
In the 2017-2018 academic year, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology reported that 10 520 girls dropped out, representing 58 percent of the national total.
According to the report, the majority of dropouts could not afford school fees—the reasons government waived tuition fees in all public secondary schools.
However, government agencies are working hand in glove with non-governmental organisations to reduce dropout rates.
Clement Ndiwo Banda, head of programmes at ActionAid, says it is time all boys and girls in the country completed primary and secondary education without facing financial barriers.
He says: “Government should ensure that education budgets are gender sensitive to provide adequate financing for measures proven to tackle persistent barriers to girl’s education.
“We need to promote and safeguard the rights of children by putting in place policies that will challenge the gender inequalities between boys and girls.”
Keeping girls in school is not only known to increase their monthly income later in life but also the chances of delaying their first pregnancy and marriage age.
However, nearly half of Malawian women marry before their 18th birthday due to cultural beliefs, widespread poverty and indifference.
Besides, most parents prefer educating a boy to a girl although she has an equal right to education.
As such, they deny the girl-child school fees, leaving her to marry young while boys go further with education.
Educationist Steve Sharra says there is lack of uniformity and coherence in how the Education Ministry and NGOs communicate and implement policies to promote girl’s education in the country.
“Not everyone is aware of the strategies which result in some stakeholders making their own decisions based on the meagre resources available to them. The bigger problem is funding to implement policies and strategies, which pushes the financial burden on to parents, guardians and communities,” he says.
Sharra asks government to lessen the financial burden placed on constrained families. He explains: “Other organisations need to support government efforts in this regard. Presently, poor communities suffer the most because households can’t raise sufficient money to pay the required school development funds of different types, buy uniform and their children drop out of school.”