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Girl education project a resounding success in Malawi
By Hazwell Kanjaye,
Inter Press Service
 
  LILONGWE, 10 March (IPS) - Suzan Mwase who lives in a remote district in Malawi, began primary school at the age of 10. Now, seven years later, at the age of 17 she can read and write.
 
  The only child of three in her family to have attended school, Suzan is now proving to be a vital 'communications link' between her family and the rest of the world.
 
  Apart from utilising her numeracy skills for the benefit of her family, Suzan is now an ''expert'' letter writer for her parents and relatives all tenant farmers at a tobacco estate in Mchinji, west of the Malawi capital of Lilongwe.
 

  ''She is an asset and source of pride to us. We find her most useful particularly when we want to write to our relatives. She also reads and translates any communication to us,'' says Mabvuto Mwase, Suzan's father.

 
  Mabvuto, 53, was driven into tenant farming by poverty and landlessness. Both Mabvuto and his wife, Tamanda, are illiterate. They also failed to send their first two girls to school because they could not afford the fees and the uniform.
 
  ''Suzan is lucky. The project started when she was still of primary-school going age. She was 10. But it was too late for her elder sisters,'' says Mabvuto referring to a 45.5 million dollar initiative launched in 1991 to increase girls' performance -- access, persistence and completion -- at primary school.
 
  The project, called Girls' Attainment in Basic Literacy and Education (GABLE) and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), waived school fees for girls who did not repeat a class in primary school -- a decision aimed at attracting girls to school and keeping them there.
 
  Tradition -- stereotyping of women, household work and poverty are some of the reasons that force many girls drop out of school.
 
  According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), only 32 per cent of Malawian women are literate.
 
 In 1990, a year before the GABLE project began, annual school fees amounted to 3.5 Malawi Kwacha (about 1.30 US dollars) while uniforms cost over 6 Malawi Kwacha, almost double the school fees amount per child -- a large amount for subsistence farmers in country whose average annual per capita was 170 US dollars.
 
  Although many communities challenged the idea of abolishing fees only for girls, mainly because of their traditionally ascribed preference for boys, the Ministry of Education says the controversy helped to spread awareness of the issues behind supporting girls' education and many families have started sending their girls to school..
 
  According to the Ministry, in under five years, between 1991 when GABLE began and 1996, girls' enrollments in primary school almost doubled from 772,000 to over 1.5 million -- a feat which the small southern African country had failed to achieve in the almost three decades after independence from Britain in 1964.
 
  The number of girls, as an overall percentage of enrolments, rose from 45 percent to 47 percent. Their enrolment in grade eight also rose from 36 percent in 1991 to 39 percent in 1996.
 
  ''The other important aspect is that the project made government increase expenditure in education from 12 percent in 1991 to 23 percent in 1998,'' says Evelyn Chinguwo, GABLE Desk Officer in the Ministry of Education.
 
   Chinguwo says, through the project, a Supplies Unit was set up in the Ministry of Education to ensure speedy procurement and delivery of educational materials.
 
  A new ''gender sensitive'' curriculum was developed, new classrooms were built and over 20,000 teachers were recruited and trained to meet increasing demands.
 
  This helped to improve the teacher-pupil ratio from one to 70 in 1991 to one to 58 in 1996.
 
  As part of the project agreements, uniforms were no longer a necessary condition for children to attend school and a new policy that allows girls to return to school after giving birth was instituted. This was a complete turnaround from previous practice which saw girls being expelled when they fell pregnant.
 
  ''I lost my future,'' she says. ''I was expelled from school, my boyfriend was too young to take me up, my parents disowned me, and my child died during delivery. I had nowhere to go ... Who knows, I might have been at university by now if these chances were there.''
 
  When government made primary school education free for both girls and boys in 1994, the GABLE project was revised. It introduced a scholarship programme, worth two million US Dollars every year, covering school and examination fees, for all secondary school girls who did not repeat in primary school.
 
  ''The bursaries were a source of encouragement and competition because we knew that if they worked hard, our enrolment at secondary school would no longer be dependent on the availability of school fees,'' says Agness Mwansambo, a marketing trainee who finished secondary school last September.
 
  According to USAID, in 1996-97 school year, some 42,000 girls benefited from the scholarship programme -- over 40 percent of all girls that were in secondary school.
 
  Complementing the GABLE project in food insecure areas is a school feeding initiative supported by the World Food Programme (WFP). The project aims to increase girls' access to education by providing food insecure households with rations whenever their girls attend school for at least 18 out of 22 days of each month.
 
  Chronic malnutrition is a widespread problem in Malawi and is one of the major factors responsible for high infant and under- five mortality. Almost 50 percent of Malawi children are reported to be stunted as a result.
 
  A recent study by the World Bank and the Malawi government indicates that 68 percent of girls engage in domestic chores, some of which is exploitative labour, and are likely to drop out of school to ensure the household is maintained and survives.
 
  Winfred Banmbuh, WFP representative said at the launch of the programme recently that when the right to education is assured, the whole nation gains.
 
  ''We should do better in class,'' says Suzan. ''School is free, we are fed and we have many role models. Every girl has the chance to finish secondary school and I should do the same although I started late.''
 
This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
 
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