Sunday, 28 August 2016

Keeping girls in school

Well that’s it. I’m through security and ready to leave Malawi again, this time after the shortest of visits, only a week. The half-hour drive to the airport took us a full hour: solid traffic because one heavy lorry had broken down, a wedding party was slowly wending its way horns honking and a VIP’s motorcade was pushing through the vehicles, security guards with guns at the ready and air-raid-type sirens blaring. He was probably a minor aide of a minor aide of a minor Minister.

Once we were past the pleasantly residential diplomatic area the road had narrowed, hence the hold ups. Once we were past the lorry, it narrowed again and we were into countryside, dry, brown and dusty. Every so often small boys waved what looked at first sight to be palm fronds, but turned out on closer inspection to be roasted mice, threaded on canes. I didn’t bother buying. As we waited in our traffic jam in the warmth of a Malawian spring day, people approached the taxi to sell trays of eggs, mysterious objects in paper bags which they would only show Malawians and outdated electronic equipment which we didn’t want or need – in this case traded by a tall man in the furred and peaked headdress of the Ngoni people.

The sides of the road, as in most cities, were lined with huge hoardings advertising beauty products for the elite, speculative housing projects and city-centre hotels. One hoarding stood out, however. It featured the huge head of President Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika (he is always given his full title). His over-sized visage is always a sign that you are being preached at. At his side was a picture of a beaming, scrubbed and uniformed female adolescent. Underneath were the words, ‘Keep girls in school’.

A worthy sentiment, you might well say. Girls should be kept in school. It was, of course, a reference to the current campaigns to discourage parents from selling their pubescent and pre-pubescent girls to older men, sometimes considerably older men, indeed sometimes ancient men, in exchange for resources which will provide the rest of the family with a bit of food security for little bit longer. Given that 50.7% of Malawians live in abject poverty, on less that $3 a day, that is, potentially, an awful lot of girls.

And the girls? As you might expect, they’re rarely asked if that is what they want. ‘That is our culture’, as they say here. The parents’ words are law. No matter that girls may have achieved entry to secondary school, may have aspirations for their future, no matter that some will still be in Primary 5, they do what they’re told. Often they end up divorced after two years, with an infant but no education or training and struggling to keep body and soul together.  Those would-be nurses and teachers are back in the situation their mothers were in fifteen or sixteen years earlier. Sometimes they’re on the scrap heap by twelve or thirteen. And these are the lucky ones. Some of their peers will be dead, their immature bodies ill prepared for childbirth. And some will have embarked on a future they never wanted or chose: HIV positive and stigmatised. And so have their babies.


The biggest single cause of HIV/AIDs nowadays is maternal transmission, though much is also being done to address it. Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) and home births are now illegal. All women are now expected to deliver in a medical facility. Not only is this to save their lives and those of their babies, it is also to reduce the likelihood of infants contracting HIV through the birth process and so that their mothers can be counseled on how to care for their children without infecting them, for instance, through breast milk. This in a country where most babies only survive if breast fed.

However, in country areas, clinics are often too far away so women continue to deliver on their own in the bushes on the way to the clinic or with the help of an illegal TBA. Young girls can be in labour for up to two days. ’Up to’ because they are unlikely to survive that long. If they do, they often develop fistula: their wombs and birth canals tear and they become incontinent, sometimes doubly so, expelled from the marital bed and home and pariahs in their communities.

People are trying to do something about this dreadful loss of life and potential, of course. In Mangochi, a remote area down in the Rift Valley, the Malawi Council for the Handicapped has donated a bicycle ambulance as part of the Early Childhood Development project. ‘Bicycle taxi?’ I hear you say. Yes, just as it sounds: a normal pushbike with the carrying basket at the back extended to take the length of a woman. This innovative form of transport is how you will get to your local hospital, 14 kilometers away. It is designed not just to reduce the death rate but also the number of children born disabled. It might not be your chosen form of transport but it is better than walking or being pushed in a wheelbarrow.

So, a good thing, that poster, Keep girls in school. Yes, girls should be kept in school, at least until they have gained the skills and qualifications they will need to keep themselves and their families, or, if they are fortunate, embark on a trade or profession. And at least until their bodies are developed enough to tolerate sexual relations with an adult man, pregnancy and labour. One might hope that it would also be long enough to develop a loving relationship with a potential husband whom they really want to marry, but let’s not hope for too much.

Except, except…. The poster featured printed words. It was on the way to the airport. It was in English. Now, no literate English-speaking family is likely to trade their daughter for a bag or two of maize. The children of the educated elite will stay in school at least until sixteen, possibly until eighteen or nineteen, and even enroll in further or higher education.

Why then, put an Anglophone poster on the road from the airport? Dare I suggest that the poster has very little to do with persuading poor rural families not to market their most valuable asset? The poster is there to persuade visitors to Malawi that the country is, at last, on its way. Come and invest with us!

The posters were not, of course, paid for by the Malawi government. They rarely are. Public officials just chose the sites. No the posters were paid for by ‘development partners’ – international donors, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and, charities, who are doing their best through financial persuasion, moral blackmail and unashamed bloody mindedness to help Malawi move forward. Our own DfID is one of the agencies developing creative and innovative ways of keeping girls in school.

But think of the opportunity costs of that poster. That hoarding cost a fortune. It could have paid for some of the said girls to re-enroll in school. And some do exactly that, if they live in a community with a wise and far-sighted chief…….. The female chief at Dedza, of course, is well known for her refusal to countenance child marriages of either girls or boys and summarily takes them back to school. She has saved the futures of hundreds of young people. But it is not that easy.


In Mzimba, in the north, so Friday’s Nation reported, girls who have been withdrawn from marriages are still finding it difficult to go back to education, according to ActionAid Malawi and its partner Youth Act Alliance.  After all, their parents sold them off in the first place, so it is highly unlikely that they will have the money to send them back to school.

The Nation reports that Mangochi has the worst drop-out rate in the country. Besides endemic poverty, a significant cause of child marriages there is the fact that many villagers go off to South Africa to work and come back with the kinds of luxury goods which tempt families to trade in their girls: blankets, mattresses, clothes and even, in a country with 12% household access to electricity, TV sets. In 2015/2016, 650 girls dropped out of 16 primary schools in Manisi Zone alone.

Sara, who wanted to become a nurse, was forcibly married off to a man returning from South Africa.  Her parents said: ‘We bore you to get married and not to become a nurse.’ Sara married at 14.

Amina’s mother said: ‘My daughter, you have to marry him; he will rescue us from poverty.’

Amina was rescued from marriage by Save the Children, working with the Forum for African Educationists in Malawi (Fawema), which sent her back to her Standard 2 secondary class to return to her ambition of being a teacher.

Fawema works with community leaders such as chiefs, religious leaders, child protection committees, school management committees and parent-teacher associations to bring back dropouts. One of Fawema’s Child Protection volunteers brought back 625 of the 650 girls in her area who dropped out of school. The other 25 are still breastfeeding their babies and will return later. The Primary Education Adviser says both enrollment and retention have increased. Fawema‘s countrywide presence is an indication of how widespread the problem is.

The Norwegian Agency of International Development (Norad) is also tackling child marriages and teenage pregnancies, by offering culturally acceptable information about sexual and reproductive health rights, knowledge which is sadly absent from the upbringing of most girls.


That huge roadside hoarding near the airport and others like it posted up and down the country could have paid for school fees for these girls. It could have paid for their babies’ futures. It could have paid for their medical care. It could have paid for posters in Chichewa or other local languages, or, indeed, more workers on the ground. It could have provided some recompense to girls’ parents for the removal of their valuable financial asset. Recent studies in Ethiopia have shown that all it takes is a couple of chickens a year and parents will keep their girls in school. I know that some of these locally-based methods and others like them are being introduced and proving successful, but still..... a hoarding on the road to the airport? In English?

Of course, it is not just Malawi where child marriage happens, but in Malawi the situation is bad. Malawi has only just passed a law making child marriage illegal. The minimum age for marriage is now 18, though I understand it is still possible to be married earlier with the parents' consent. (Mmm...something slightly odd here...)

The flagship UNICEF study, ‘The State of the World’s Children’, published every couple of years, reports that while there has been significant progress across the world in raising children out of poverty and giving them education, that progress is not equally distributed. The poorest children are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday and be chronically undernourished than the richest. Most of these children are born to child mothers.

The figures for sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are astonishing.
  • Children born to mothers with no education are almost three times more likely to die than those born to mothers with secondary education.
  • Girls from the poorest households are twice as likely to marry as those from the wealthiest.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa has the worst figures. 247 million, two in three children, live in ‘multi-dimensional poverty’ deprived of what they need to develop and survive.
  • 60% of 20-24 year olds from the poorest fifth of the population have had less than four years schooling.
  • By 2030, 69 million children will die before they are five, most of them from preventable diseases. Half of those dead children live in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • More than half of the 60 million school-aged children are out of school.
  • Nine out of ten children will be living in extreme poverty.
One could go on and on. Currently, 124 million children do not go to primary and lower-secondary school. Even worse, of those who do finish primary school, more than one-third, 250 million, will not have learned to read or do simple arithmetic. Why? Because the schools are so awful. I thought I had seen desperately poor schools when I was working in Uganda. Malawian schools are far far worse. It is not that countries in sub-Saharan Africa have not improved, or that poverty has not reduced. Of course there has been substantial progress, but the birth rate is rising dramatically, climate change is biting and hence more and more has to be done.


In Africa, the solution to poverty is education. The solution to poor health is education. The solution to climate change is education. The solution to unemployment is education. And it is girls who are least likely to be kept in school. And it is girls who will bring up the next generation.

Behind all that has been written about in this post and by people far more knowledgeable than me, is the unsaid and unsayable: that boys and men are part of this situation too. It is men, young and old, who rape girls on the way to and from school, who attack their huts when they are ‘self boarding’ at the local – but not nearby - secondary school. It is men who desire young female flesh and pay for it with bags of maize. It is men who try to cure HIV by sleeping with virgins. It is male witchdoctors (sorry, ‘herbalists’) who provide that prescription.

To keep girls in school requires more than the school Mothers’ Group ‘counselling’ girls about remaining ‘pure’. It is about local leaders – opinion makers, men – tackling the culture that says that men have uncontrollable sexual appetites which girls and women just have to evade or accommodate. That says that it is girls who are to blame if they get pregnant, that girls alone are responsible for their sexual and reproductive health. UNICEF reports that one in five girls in Malawi have experienced sexual violence. Ujamaa, a Kenyan charity working in Malawi, reports that one in five has actually been raped. Ujamaa is also one of those relatively rare organisations which tackles the issue of men and boys.

It is predatory men who stop girls going to school. If men withdrew from the marriage market then in this poor country, girls would no longer be for sale.

Perhaps a large hoarding outside the airport, or, better in every village, could say just that. Perhaps the message could be in the vernacular, perhaps it could be delivered on the radio or in person by the local chief.

Perhaps the schools could do the same.




 The following post is about the work carried out by the Dedza chief and others like her

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