Girls face obstacles to education

Girls in Malawi have to overcome a mountain of sometimes insurmountable obstacles if they hope to complete their education, a new study has found.

The girls' battle to get an education falls within the shocking statistic that only 20 percent of Malawi's children complete primary school.

The latest study, conducted by the government and UNICEF's Basic Education Programme, found that although the introduction of free education in 1994 removed a major obstacle, the country still had a high drop out rate caused by a new set of constraints.

While boys also struggled through difficulties, such as being taken out of school during peak agricultural activities, getting an education appeared to be more difficult for girls.

Poverty and economic conditions often decided whether an education was possible. One of the main obstacles was the perception that boys' education was seen as more important. Girls often started school at a later age - eight instead of six - and were weighed down with "burdensome involvement" in household chores while trying to find time for their schooling, the report said.

According to the government and UNICEF report, gender differences, encouraged through segregated activities at home, continued at school. Girls were tasked with collecting water for teachers if the school didn't have its own taps. Schools had fewer female teachers so girls did not have role models and female teachers were often allocated infant classes.

The study found that girls were perceived to be less intelligent and they were bullied and sexually harassed, making school a hostile place.

Their performance was hampered by other conditions that boys also had to deal with, such as poor teacher knowledge and training, inadequate teaching materials and unstimulating class environments.

If girls became pregnant, the Education Department allowed them to return to school once they had given birth, but this policy had not been properly disseminated so girls still aborted and hid pregnancies.

The processing of applications for readmission often took two years - another setback for young women already battling community pressure to get married rather than return to school.

Some teachers were responsible for pregnancies, but because of connivance they were not held to account for their actions, the report said.

When girls were able to return to school, they found that their old school saw them as a bad influence and preferred them to go to another school.

Education policy stated that boys responsible for pregnancies should also be suspended, but they avoided this by transferring to another school, with no disruption to their own education.

The Malawi National Human Development Report (MNHDR), released in May, put the student mix in secondary schools at 72 percent boys and 28 percent girls and said only 27 percent of university admissions were women.

The joint government/UNICEF programme had been responding to these challenges through a number of strategies with the help of the World Food Programme (WFP), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the British Department for International Development (DFID), the Danish Agency for Development Assistance, the World Bank and the African Development Bank.

In a paper on accelerating progress toward education for all, released in April, the World Bank said: "Good education reduces poverty and inequality and is essential for sustained economic growth. Combined with good macroeconomic policies, it is fundamental for the construction of democratic societies and globally competitive economies."

It noted that in every country, completion rates were lowest for children from poor families and in rural areas. The MNHDR put Malawi's education challenges into perspective - it said 65 percent of the people in Malawi are poor, and 28 percent are extremely poor.

A single mother at a nutrition centre told IRIN earlier this year that her seven-year-old daughter could not go to school as she had to look after her baby twin brothers to enable her mother to do piece work to feed the family.

To turn this situation around, in the 1997 to 2001 programme cycle, the government/UNICEF programme had implemented two major projects revolving around community schools and life skills. So far, 85 community schools had been built in 10 districts in areas of low enrolment.

The new schools had enrolled 80,000 pupils and introduced the concept of "Joyful Learning". This incorporated participatory teaching and learning, the provision of text books, furniture and equipment, the improvement of the school environment and the provision of safe water and improved sanitation.

In response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, they also introduced life skills programmes to help youths make informed decisions on their sexual behaviour.

But for the girls who hope to complete their education and have greater choices, the most significant changes will come in projects within the 2002 to 2006 programme planned by the government and UNICEF.

One such project will support measures to ensure full and equal access to basic education through community schools and will ensure the elimination of gender discrimination in classrooms, schools, home and community and the provision of textbooks.

It will also promote the enforcement of the policy of re-admission of young mothers and mobilise families and communities against harmful traditions and cultural practices.