#16Days – For Young Girls in Malawi, Putting School Ahead of the Wedding Altar
In April, President Peter Mutharika of Malawi signed into law the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act of 2015. Among its provisions was the outlawing of child marriage, and the establishment for the first time of the age of 18 as the minimum age for marriage. This is a major achievement in a country where half of all girls are married by age 18 and one in eight girls is married by age 15.
The Marriage Act is one of a number of important steps that are required to address gender inequality and promote the rights of youth – especially girls – in Malawi. In the 2014 Human Development Report, Malawi ranked 174 out of 187 countries on the Gender Development Index. Life expectancy for females and males is only 55 years, and the mean years of schooling for a girl in the country is just three years.
Early marriage and entrenched gender practices in Malawi, including discrimination and violence towards girls and women, carry a long-lasting and negative impact that extends to many areas, including accessing educational opportunities. In a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, the writers observe that girls who married early reported having their education “interrupted or ended.” They face difficulties in finding the fees to pay for school, are unable to access flexible school programs, and are often forced to do household chores. Many of these challenges also apply to young women who are not married.
Concern Worldwide, through the safe learning component of its Education program, seeks to promote the well-being of children, positive self-esteem, the right to education, and the motivation and desire to learn. Interventions to address School-Related Gender Based Violence (SRGBV), to consider and challenge gender norms in schools and society that promote discrimination, and advocacy on gender equality in education are features of Concern’s education programming. From 2012-2015, through a grant from the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women (UNTF), Concern implemented a program to support girls to access quality education and address SRGBV in Nsanje District, Malawi. Nsanje, located in the Southern Region, is one of the poorest communities in the country.
The program entailed three major features:
- Providing a safe learning environment for girls in 17 primary schools in Nsanje (overall 12,000 students were targeted through the program)
- Empowering stakeholders with greater capacity to prevent and respond to GBV in schools and communities
- Strengthen the implementation of national commitments to address SRGBV through work with local and national level authorities
Through this program, Concern Malawi worked with school authorities to develop resources to monitor girls’ attendance and reporting on instances of corporal punishment and harassment. Teachers and community stakeholders, including police and health officials, took part in trainings on the Code of Conduct and child protection matters. Sessions were organized for male students, fathers and community elders to explore issues of masculinity and gender equality. One outcome of this was the establishment of the Nyantchiri School Fathers’ Group, which in its school community has worked to protect and rescue vulnerable children and intervened to prevent girls from being subjected to early or forced marriage.
To build student empowerment and agency in addressing SRGBV, student councils were established at all 17 schools to serve as the voice of students and for engagement with school officials. Activities focusing on girls’ issues, including health, violence, and peer pressure were fostered through the student councils. Through a partnership between Concern and Theatre for a Change, a local NGO, student councils were supported in using circle groups, skits and games to address SRGBV, positive discipline and child protection.
With the program having recently concluded, the Concern Malawi team and community stakeholders are taking stock of the program’s accomplishments and next steps. During the span of the program, greater school attendance and retention for girls has occurred, as well as a decline in reported violence and a decline in the percentage of students and teachers who believe physical punishment is acceptable for disciplining learners. Nonetheless, changing behaviors, attitudes and norms on gender issues requires more time. Unfortunately, violence against both boys and girls remains pervasive, and girls continue to report considerable pressure to leave school and marry early.
There are still hopeful notes. The unanimous approval by Parliament and subsequent signing of the Marriage Act by the president was a powerful victory and the culmination of years of advocacy. The new law is not an ends in itself – greater advocacy and action by the government, donors, and civil society partners is required for the fulfillment and protection of children’s rights to access learning environments that are free from violence in Malawi. The ultimate success of the new law will lie in the political will and courage to enforce its provisions, especially those around the rights of girls.
Lincoln Ajoku is the Education Advisor with Concern Worldwide US, a role he has held since March 2014. Based in New York, he provides technical support to Concern’s education programs in Liberia, Haiti, Burundi, Bangladesh and Malawi. As part of the Concern education team, his focus is on supporting Concern’s work in education in emergencies, school management and safe learning.
Lincoln began his work in education as a fourth grade teacher in Houston, Texas. He has subsequently worked in education and international development for agencies including the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, with a regional focus on West and East Africa. Through a fellowship with the Centre for Global Development, he served as a special advisor in the Ministry of Education in Liberia. Lincoln received his Bachelor’s degree from The City College of New York, and his Master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.