Mzuzu’s Little Mothers

This article, by Cassie Delaney examines the current education situation for young girls in rural Malawi and through interviews establishes that, in that particular region, the MDG to deliver universal primary education by 2015 is unachievable.

Cassie was on her third visit to Malawi, volunteering with Wells for Zoe, Easter 2012

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“The girls come from far and they pass through many problems on their way”. Principal Rhoda Mulowayi talks to me in her office in Zolo Zolo Secondary School, Mzuzu. It is the Easter holidays and outside droves of children sing and play in the stone-splitting sun with a group of Irish volunteers. The secondary school students who prepare to sit their finals have come to ask for books and writing materials. Younger children from the community have come to catch a glimpse of the Mzungu. The shyer, timid children sit observing while their brazen older siblings approach the volunteers who entertain with bubbles and balloons and games. The scene is reminiscent of any school yard. Children run, laugh, play and fall over. But, on the perimeters of this playful scene, groups of girls carrying babies on their backs stand huddled together. These girls watch and laugh and sing but are unable to join in the rough and tumble. These girls are Mzuzu’s reluctant mothers and when asked each iterate the same thing; everyday, as their brothers and peers go to school, they are left behind to mind their younger siblings, fetch water and prepare food for their households because their place is in the home. It is these girls that have caused Rhoda concern.

The statistics are’nt new. In Sub-Sahara Africa, 31 million school aged children are not attending school. For those who can access education, 30% drop out before completing a course of primary education. In Malawi, 51% of primary school aged girls are not in school. A further 5% leave education before second level. We have spent several days in Malawi, and I have photographed many young girls who have each explained that they cannot attend school because of their commitments at home.

In Zolo Zolo Secondary School, a class of 72 students prepare to sit their final state exams. Of these students, 52 are male. “We are talking of gender equality worldwide” says Rhoda, “but for us to achieve this gender equality there is need for the girl child to be taken care of. For we have a saying here in Malawi; Educate a boy and you educate an individual, but educate a girl and you educate a nation”.

An expected opinion in Malawi is that girls should serve solely a domestic purpose. Rhoda ratifies that it is the common understanding that the place for girls is in the home. “When the mother is busy, the girl child is there to take care of the family. When someone is in the hospital, the girl child takes care of the family”. This sentiment is acknowledged by UNICEF who publically state “the socialization process victimizes girls because they are considered to be the weaker sex. Spending valuable resources such as money to pay for their education is considered a waste because they are expected to get married and be supported by their husbands. Their profile in society has remained low and their voices have not been heard”.

It would appear that the failure in Malawi’s education system is the social standing of women. When the United Nations talk about The Millennium Development Goal to achieve universal primary education by 2015 (Goal 2), they often cite this standing as the obstacle they face in realising this goal. But this, in Rhoda’s view, is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are more monstrous concerns facing young girls in Malawi; concerns which significantly hinder the progress of education and equality.

Rhoda sits behind a large pine desk. Her office is sparse, dark and piled high with loose papers. There is little room for me to sit so I stand leaning over an aging steel filing cabinet. On the lime wash concrete walls, attendance sheets for the four forms indicate a low level of attendance. Outside, the children and volunteers continue to play. Rhoda leans forward, her unbalanced chair moving with her weight. There is hesitance in her voice, as though she is reluctant to continue.

“The girls fall in to a lot of temptations” says Rhoda with regret. “It is easy for the girls to fall into the temptation of having so many boyfriends. Also the girls do not have enough money and they can easily be tempted to have money and in exchange for money they offer their bodies. We are surrounded by a community of drunkards and as you know, drunkards can rape.”

“Girls are suffering”, she continues. “Those who drop out are girls. They are pregnant and we can’t keep them a place”.

Rhoda looks distantly out her office door to the children and collection of classrooms outside. The school is large but unassuming. The classrooms are bare and, if one were to pass the gathering of buildings on a weekend, one would assume the place was derelict.  In previous conversation Rhoda expressed a desire to turn Zolo Zolo in to a boarding school for girls, which she believes, will ascertain their attendance throughout all forms. But, with the school lacking in basic provisions such as desks and chairs, the promise of full boarding facilities is a long way off.

The United Nations released a report about Goal 2 in 2010 in which they stated enrolment in primary education in developing regions had reached 89 per cent in 2008. But, from conversation with Rhoda, it is clear that it is not enrolling student in education that is problematic, but rather, keeping them in education. She is adamant that a boarding school is the solution and when I ask her why, Rhoda looks at me, and bluntly states, “Because we still have these arranged marriages”.

In the Malawian legal system, there is ambiguity regarding marriage. Law states that a person over 18 can marry without parental consent and those between the ages of 15 – 18 may marry with the consent of a guardian.  The Law Commission has fought to increase the age of consent to 18 with parental consent, and 21 without. In regards to forced marriage, the constitution states no person over the age of 18 can be forced in to marriage. But, according to Rhoda, the reality in rural villages is that young girls are still being coerced into marriage to repay family debt. This practice is known as kupimbira and is a form of debt repayment where a young daughter may be transferred to the creditor for marriage for failure to pay the debt back.

Kupimbira is a taboo subject in the region and when I approach young people and ask about it, few are willing to talk. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, such practice is internationally illegal and yet, according to the few who speak, is widely practiced in Malawi.

In spite of my pale Irish skin, I join the volunteers outside to play with the young children. Someone has thought them a game of “Pile on Cassie” and when my sunburnt skin can’t hack any more, I sit down with a group of young girls. One girl, Rebecca Murawae, speaks with impeccable English. Her skin is clear, he eyes are bright and in all respects she looks healthy and happy. She is 15 and in form one in Zolo Zolo. She tells me English is her favourite subject in school. I tell her that I study journalism and joke that she should consider it because the world always needs more journalists but she laughs and says she hopes one day to become a nurse. Rebecca is a beautiful looking young woman but what catches my attention is her evident intelligence. I ask her about her family and she tells me about her sister and brother. Rebecca seems to be well educated and I assume her family are one of the elite few who can afford the fees but she skims over the issue of fees saying “my parents did some business” and I decide not to question any further.

It is getting late in the evening and I wonder about the things Rhoda has told me. I have travelled to Malawi many times, met many people and read extensive reports by the UN and have only ever heard hushed whispers about Kupimbira. Like most, I believed with international laws and the advances in human rights and education, that such practices must have ceased and that it can’t really be that common. Yet, this is not the first time I have been surprised in Malawi, and it’s certainly not going to be the last either. In an effort to return to more upbeat and casual conversation I turn to Rebecca and ask “and do you like school?”

“Yes of course!” she says with hurriedly “I like it, I like school”, she pauses “I want to stay in school”. Rebecca seems to have defied the statistics. But then Rebecca speaks again and I am quickly reminded of the unfortunate truth of Malawi.

“We have problems too though. I want to stay in school so that I do not have to get married like my sister”.

Like all the girls here, Rebecca’s future is uncertain. What is palpable though, is her intelligence.

“I want to stay so that I can assist my mother and my sister. Like my sister, I don’t want to leave school because of our problems; I want to solve our problems because I stayed in school”.

Back in Rhoda’s office I mention Goal 2 and ask does she think such a goal is achievable.

She laughs.

“One hundred per cent of boys and girls in school by 2015? No that is not even tangible. I doubt this very much. Why? Because we will always have these problems with the girls. We will always have the girls dropping out. We need to solve the problems with the girls before we can solve the problems with education”.

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