Reversing the Tide of School Drop-Outs in Malawi

Courtesy of Concern Worldwide

In Mtumba village in the Nsanje district in Malawi, the traditional practice of girls leaving school to get married has created a vicious cycle of illiteracy among girls. In a community of about 1,500, just three girls have completed their primary school education and they are now married too.

“It’s disappointing to note that all girls in our village are rushing, or are being forced into marriage,” says Lilian Kastomu, one of the girls who completed primary school but is now a mother of two. “That’s why I decided to join the Mother Group to encourage girls in my village not to make the mistake I made,” she added.

 Lilian and other women in the village are part of a movement seeking to encourage young girls to go back to school after they drop out for a variety of reasons.  Most often a forced marriage (aka “arranged marriage”) is negotiated by parents: a young bride is “worth” a higher dowry for her parents. But early marriage for girls means they drop out of school to run the household and have children themselves.

Concern, in partnership with local NGO FACE, runs a project in the district to improve education for young girls. The two organizations are working to strengthen local structures in the communities to take charge in managing the education of their children and to challenge cultural practices.

After just a few months, the community of Mtumba, in partnership with Concern and FACE, has taken over managing their own schools and is discouraging early marriages. Recently, the Mother Group and the School Management Committee (SMC) investigated a case in which an eighth grade student, Maria, (not her real name) was allegedly coerced into a relationship with one of her teachers.

“We are the ears and eyes of the community. It didn’t take us long to get the story. After our investigations, which we did with the Mother Group, Maria revealed that she was truly coerced by her teacher into a relationship and her family was agreeable to the arrangement,” said Flora Peter, secretary of the SMC of Mulaka Primary School in Mtumba Village.

The SMC took up the issue with the district education management office. But even when the teacher was suspended, the battle was not yet won. “We wanted to see our girl back in class to continue with her education,” says Flora. Along with Lilian, they were chosen by their respective committees to ensure that Maria returned to school. The two approached the headmaster of Maria’s former school and Maria was re-admitted. Before she returned to class, she was counseled on the dangers of early marriage.

Working hand-in-hand with Concern and FACE, Maria is now back in class and eager to finish primary school. “We had to prepare her for school because her classmates knew about her story. Without our support she could easily have given up on going to school again. But we strengthened her resolve by warning her in advance of the challenges she may face and how to cope,” Lilian explains.

The Mother Group and the SMC have also been involved in campaigns to woo school dropouts back into class. Although the group has had some success, their work is far from over, insists Lilian: “The community still has mixed feelings about our work. Some think we are there to castigate our cultures, which is not the case. We are only advocating for the abolishment of those negative cultures that are destroying the future of our children.”

In Nsanje district, most girls drop out of school due to the difficult learning environment, with sexual harassment by teachers identified as a primary cause. The dropout rate there is 17 per cent, higher than the national average of 14 per cent. But Lilian and Flora are hopeful that with groups like theirs, the dropout rate will fall and their program can serve as a model for neighboring villages.

By Joseph Scott

Joseph Scott is the former Communications Officer for Concern Worldwide in Malawi