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Bringing girls back

by Raphael Mweninguwe


19-year old Ethel Elephat dropped out of primary school in 2010 because she could not afford school fees. She had lost both parents, and her only option for survival was getting married.

“While I was preparing my wedding”, Ethel says, “I was approached by some village women who told me not to get married and go back to school instead.” Ethel accepted their advice and is currently doing her second year at Mkaika Day Community Secondary School. But she is struggling to pay her school fees, which she has to come up with on her own – no relative is able to help her.

The women belonged to what is called a Mother Group. They are community-based volunteers for Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI), a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Malawi. PDI gets funding from WaterAid, a British NGO. PDI has been using WaterAid money to build  new sanitation and hygiene facilities such as toilets in schools. This is an important issue, because many girls drop out because of a lack of separate toilets for girls. PDI also cooperates with Mother Groups to bring back girls who dropped school for other reasons, such as poverty for instance. Early pregnancies are an issue too.

Mother Groups try to prevent early marriages, and they do their best to persuade young women who have married to return to classes. According to PDI, some 200 girls like Ethel have been saved from early weddings and brought back to school.

Malawi’s government just passed a law criminalising a marriage for children under the age of 15. But the situation on the ground tells another story: Many girls get married as young as 13 years.

Poverty is the major challenge. The UN estimates that 57 % of the 16 million Malawians live in abject poverty. Many families cannot even afford a meal a day, so buying school materials for their children is not a priority. “We are seven children in the family. My father died in 2010. Since then I had problems going to school because I don’t have money to pay for my basic needs,” recounts Esnart Kawanga. She first dropped out of school in 2010 but was brought back to school by PDI a year later. She is in secondary school now, but has difficulty raising the money for the tuition fees. 

Thandie Kambalame of PDI says: “School is not only about attending classes, you also need money to buy clothes, books and soap.” His organisation cannot provide all these things, so keeping girls in school is a constant struggle.

PDI is not the only INGO trying to ensure that youngsters – and especially girls – finish school in Malawi. Save the Children, another INGO that relies on Mother Groups, claims to have brought some 290 girls back to school in the Mangochi District.


Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist based in Malawi.




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