Education opens doors: encouraging and inspiring girls in Malawi

Clara Chimwemwe Chindime, Girls Education Officer for UNICEF, explains how education enabled her to achieve her dreams and describes UNICEF’s programme to improve education for all children in Malawi.

My father was a military man so I spent my primary school years in army schools across Malawi—wherever his duty station was at the time. Since my parents had only two girls, they encouraged us both in our education. As a result, I was selected to pursue a Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University of Malawi at the age of 17.

After my degree, I applied for a Masters course at the University of Pretoria. They accepted me on condition that I do the honours degree first. I did not have a scholarship and I thought that this would be the end of my dream. However, my father surprised me. He sold a house which he had and used the money to send me to university. It was this loving gesture that pushed me to work hard. I completed both my degrees with distinctions. My field of study was demography, which focuses on statistical trends such as births, deaths and incidence of disease to illustrate the changing structure of human populations.

After completing my studies, I returned to Malawi in 2000. I was briefly employed as a secondary school teacher before finding a job at the National Statistical Office. My passion for statistics took me in another direction when I joined the Civil Society Education Coalition. The organisation carried out a lot of advocacy activities related to education. After a few years, I became the director and, during this period, developed an interest in education. I now have two children of my own, both boys, Macphillip (14) and Frank (8).

My passion for the education sector
My parents did not live long enough to see me complete my studies. As much as the loss was very painful, I felt that they had equipped me for life ahead as they had provided for my education. This is why I value education so much because, from my own experience, I know it opens doors. When I joined UNICEF as the Girls Education Officer in 2008, I saw it as an opportunity to give back to the community and to encourage and inspire girls in their education.

In a society where social cultural practices and traditional beliefs are barriers to girls’ education, I felt that I could use my own story to motivate others. Most people place a low value on girls’ education but, as someone who was born into family of only two girls, I have managed to prove that not only boys can make it in life.

At upstream level, I work with Ministry of Education officials at the national and district level. Downstream, I work with NGO partners who are implementing various projects in schools and communities. I also work with the girls themselves, particularly to ensure they are participating fully in education.  At the school level I engage with girls in groups to mentor and encourage them to persevere despite the various challenges they face in their daily lives. It gives me so much pleasure when I see the girls I have mentored progress to the next academic level.

Clara Chimwemwe Chindime, Girls Education Officer for UNICEF
Clara Chimwemwe Chindime, Girls Education Officer for UNICEF

The state of education in Malawi
In an effort to provide an education to every child, Malawi introduced the free primary education in 1994. Despite this, some children are still out of school for a number of reasons.  The children attending primary school are generally aged between six and 14. Primary education takes eight years (Standards 1 to 8) and falls in the category of basic education which is meant to equip children with basic knowledge and skills to allow them to function as competent and productive citizens in a free society when they grow up. At the end of eight years, students sit the Primary School Leaving Certificate Examination (PSLCE), which determines their eligibility for entry into secondary school.

Although education financing is largely the responsibility of the government, external donors continue to play a significant role, especially with regard to the purchase of teaching materials, equipment, furniture and the building and repair of schools. Local communities and parents are increasingly playing a role in educational finance for example by sharing in the cost of buildings and their maintenance, transport to schools, uniforms, learning materials and extra-curricular activities. Community participation is particularly significant at the primary level, where more than 75% of Malawi’s primary schools have been built with the support of local communities.

Transition to secondary school is low as only 35% of boys and 37% of girls progress to secondary school.

Challenges for Malawi’s schoolchildren
The introduction of free primary education in Malawi has seen a large increase in the number of pupils going to primary school but this has also brought major challenges. The biggest challenge of my job is working in an environment where the needs in education are so many and there are limited government resources to provide quality education. The country has put in place the policies and strategies to ensure children are in school, creating a demand for education, but the supply side has been slow to respond.

Infrastructure: Pupils have to learn under trees because there are more children attending primary schools and not enough classrooms to house them. As a result, children are being denied the chance to learn under normal conditions due to scarce resources which include desks, books and teaching materials. Children are also exposed to hardships beyond their age, having to endure the cold, rain and windy conditions.

Hygiene: Children have to learn in an environment that has very poor sanitation, without proper toilets and clean water sources.

Teachers: The Government has made provisions that there is one teacher for every 60 children but in most cases the teacher pupil ratio is higher. Findings from the Education Management Information System 2015 show there is only one qualified teacher for every 75 pupils.

Class size: At present the government’s recommendation for class size is 50, but due to insufficient space and teachers, many schools have to put two classes together making classes of up to 100 students.

Other issues affecting girls:

  • 4% of girls aged 15-19 are married or in a union while less than 2% boys marry before the age of 19.
  • 29% of adolescents aged 15-19 in Malawi have begun childbearing, while 22% of women age 15-19 have given birth.
  • Early childbearing among teenagers is more common in rural than in urban areas (31% versus 21%).
  • 20% of girls experience sexual abuse.

IKEA Foundation impact on education
IKEA Foundation support has helped to improve schools in Malawi, supporting them to become child friendly. Funds from the Foundation have helped pay for the construction of about 588 classrooms, benefiting around 470,400 children, as well as teachers’ houses, a library, administration blocks, teacher resource centres and 48 boreholes.

The funding has also helped to pay for science kits, mathematics kits and ‘School in a Box’ kits. This means more children now have access to quality education with better facilities to support their growth. The Foundation has also supported teacher training through upgrading their education and about 3,500 teachers have benefited.

Support from the Foundation has also helped strengthen community engagement in school matters. Getting the community involved is an integral part of the programme and helps ensure parents value their children’s education and are supportive of school developmental activities.