Ruth acts older than her age; at 14, she lives alone in her own hut in Namadzi a village in Chiradzulu, on her grand mothers’ compound. Ruth wakes early every morning; sweeps the compound, fetches water from a borehole nearby, and collects firewood for cooking. Glad to see the sun rising, Ruth picks up a bucket of maize and heads for the mill to make maize flour for her nsima (a local dish made from maize flour), hoping to get back in an hours’ time. Lucky enough she is on holiday, she would have been late for school again.
The distracted, distant look in her eyes tells a lot about her; orphaned at an early age she has been raised by her grandmother from her mother’s side who believes that Ruth is now old enough to get married. However, because Ruth refuses to marry she is now being punished for her disobedience. Her grandmother refuses to eat with her and insists that she cooks her own food, and provide for her own needs; although a close uncle disagrees with her grandmothers’ stand there is he can do being financially crippled to help Ruth so she is left on own.
This is one of the many cases that orphans are experiencing. Orphaned children are either pulled out of school or not enrolled at all due to the financial constraints of their affected families, and have to assume responsibilities of heading or providing for households- and girls are most times the more vulnerable as is Ruth’s case which affects their performance in class.
Malawi is home to an estimated 1,000,000 orphans with few resources or facilities to care for so many children. According to UNICEF, nearly 13 per cent of children have lost their parents or caregivers and 17 per cent are living without their biological parents. Without parental protection, these children are exposed to neglect, abuse and exploitation and lack access to basic necessities and services. Due to these challenges orphaned children also suffer immense emotional turmoil, which leaves deep psychological scars.
Ruth is one of the many girls in Malawi whose education is being sponsored by a Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). An average student in Form Two (Grade 10), Ruth was identified by her headmistress in Form One (Grade 9) when the NGO (name withheld) approached the headmistress for names of female students in the school in need of funding, and now Ruth receives a school uniform, school bag, writing material, a monthly stipend and a blanket with her fees paid for in full by the NGO each academic year. But despite all the provisions for Ruth by the NGO, she is still not able to excel and concentrate in school with all that’s going on in her life at home.
“Responsibilities and wrong expectations are the main barriers to my education”, says Ruth who despite all her setbacks still has dreams of going to college and becoming a nurse before getting married. But for long can she stand the pressure?
In 1990, the Education For All initiative launched at the World Conference on Education in Thailand and the UN Millennium Development Goals, which was enacted in 2000, put the education of girls and women at the forefront of educational initiatives globally. As guiding frameworks for poverty reduction, the Government of Malawi (GOM) adopted the 2002 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper and the 2006 Malawi Growth and Development Strategy. Both of these multi‐sector, national strategies places human capital development through education as the central pillar to poverty reduction. The GOM’s expectation is that education will move the country toward greater economic, as well as social progress. This has led to partnerships between local women leaders, the government, international donors, and NGOs drawn to action, ranging from material and monetary support for orphans especially and girls in general - these NGOs offer study scholarships, learning materials and even open libraries in remote areas as a way of encouraging the recipients to study, but the overseers overlook the role that culture and the community play in the lives of these students. Thus, still failing to create a stable and sustainable environment for these girls to remain in school.
Since most of the bursaries offered to orphans and disadvantaged students are based on only the financial need of the recipient, they seem to have no influence on the recipients’ academic performance. Moreover, the overseers as earlier stated fail to look at other factors that can influence the academic performance of the recipient. As a result, the student can easily fail and underperform. Generally, most of these recipients require emotional, psychological and moral support on top of the monetary support they get so as bring out the best in them.
Women constitute 52 per cent of the population in Malawi with an illiteracy rate of 56 per cent leading to most of them being marginalized in social and economic spheres and unable to contribute effectively to the social, economic and political development of the country. So educating girls and women means empowering the larger part of the population which will automatically have an effect on the economy of the country. While the GOM and NGOs offer monetary support, without taking a closer look into the existing cultural barriers that often times disallow girl to receive a full education, the problem will not cease.
Ruth’s case only builds on top of the barriers that girls in general face in Malawi.
The problem normally starts at an early age; Girls are trained by parents and relatives to help in most house hold chores unlike their male counter parts. These girls grow up believing that they are responsible for their homes , so once an adult falls ill or there is extra the girls easily withdraw from school .With a little self-confidence and drive, going to school is not about achieving or attaining anything but merely about fulfilling a duty. Besides, having their voices not being heard and their basic rights not being recognized, their educational attainments remain low and poor. It seems as if they believe that - as long as they carry out their domestic chores they are satisfied; that – they will attain fulfilment by carrying out their “social responsibilities” leaving behind their academic success. This leads to poor performance in class, and in more tragic cases them dropping out.
Worse still in some sub cultures of Malawi, a girl after her first menstruation undergoes an initiation ceremony where she is advised on how to carry herself maturely. At the end of the ceremony a man is normally appointed to sleep with her just to prove that she is sexually mature. As a result, what we are now faced with in such places is a large percentage of sexually active adolescents with little or no basic knowledge about the functioning of their bodies and the risks of becoming sexually active at an early age. This leads to unwanted pregnancies, hazardous abortions and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
NGOs will have to address these cultural barriers alongside monetary donations if they want to see girls in Malawi succeed in their education. I believe the best way to keep these girls in school, on top what most of these NGOs are doing, is by transforming their socio-cultural environment so as to create a conducive learning environment for them.
A recent research by Care Malawi showed that adult women hold a strategic key in changing the mental processes for girls because; through their role modelling- young girls develop an awareness of possibilities for their own futures. In addition, working effectively with mothers and other adult women mentors involves two important elements: creating informal spaces where women can discuss and address issues they consider important; and establishing supportive links between the women and girls. So if the GOM could also find ways of training and empowering women, this would automatically address girl’s upbringing in the home.
But as the youth are getting older, the gender lines are beginning to blur, and boys are seeing the value of women, not only at home, but in the professional world. Amusing as it sounds the current economic crisis in Malawi has brought a positive mentality on the younger generation; men now know the difference that an educated working woman makes in the home.
Ruth’s is a book being written, she is awaiting her Junior Certificate of Education (JCE) examinations results (National examinations written in Form two) so as to proceed to Form Three. A social welfare representative was informed about Ruth’s situation and hopefully some measures will be taken to save Ruth from an early marriage.
People ought to understand that we need the entire population in Malawi to effect change on our ailing economy-we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. Both men and women need to change their attitude regarding self and others. Now Malawi after spending too long in infancy after independence, believes it’s time to become more self-reliant, and to engage both men and women in the workforce in order to improve our economy.
Let’s work toward a brighter Malawi so girls like Ruth can grow up to be self-reliant! Say Yes to education for girls! Say Yes to better support for orphans! This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Frontline Journals