International Day of the Girl 2018
Today, 11th October, is the International Day of the Girl. Last month seeing our children heading off to school might be a relief but is also a great feeling. Here in Ireland, secondary schooling is free. There are no fees, but lots of other little costs mount up. In reality though, we are the privileged. Girls have equal opportunity to boys and in many exams now, girls get better results. Our schools and teachers are excellent where hard work can provide the opening to a successful and fulfilled life.
In another part of our common Globalised World, Malawi, there is a whole other story. Secondary schools are fee-paying, school buildings are little more than a shelter, blackboards are white, chalk is scarce, teachers are poorly qualified, and badly paid (often not paid), class sizes are from 60 upwards, school books are expensive, and regularly unavailable, while even copies and pens are beyond the reach of many.
Last month Florence the head our Girl Child Project did her extensive interviews with families whose girls have qualified for Government Secondary School but have no possibility of finding fees. If the family has any money, the boys will be educated in preference to the girls, no matter how bright they are, and that’s only the tip of the inequality that girls must endure. We took all 49 girls who come to us, as we believe that education can be an unstoppable process in the liberation of girls to certainly change their own world and maybe do even more.
Imagine how you might feel if you were the parent of a bright, hardworking, diligent little girl and you just had no money to send her to secondary school. This would be the case if you were a subsistence farmer, barely managing to avoid starvation, with no social welfare and in fact no social services of any nature, and no chance of a job.
If girls can’t find funding, they stay at home, can be married off (or more precisely, sold off) to older men who can afford to pay a dowry, end up as second or third wives, and live as slaves to culture and tradition with little hope of developing their true potential.
Secondary education brings many possibilities like avoiding early pregnancy at 13 or 14 or 15, like learning something about their rights, like increasing the chance of their children going to school, like breaking the cycle, like getting and having a better life.
While working with the women’s groups on other projects we gradually realised that there were girls who qualified to go to Government secondary schools but only a few girls got to go. Few had the fees to attend and there are the uniforms, clothes, books and other necessities, which all add up for the poorest. When there is a choice parents educate boys. Even when girls get to school there are sanitary issues, which keep them away for days each month.
Only 4 out of every 100 rural girls get to finish secondary school
Six years ago, when I saw streams of girls arriving at our small office (following support of a few the previous year) the tears flowed at hearing the stories and I decided that this was a scandal and we had to do something about it. We had no funding, but I knew it was something we needed to add to the Wells for Zoë package.
So, we wrote to all schools in the Mzuzu area, a radius of about 20 kilometers, and ended up enabling 88 girls to get to Secondary school.
In doing so we began what we called the Girl Child Student Project, a programme to enable girls to attend Secondary School. We had no lofty ambitions like University or Third level just that these little ones would have four years without pregnancy or marriage.
This year the number has risen to 269, (like six classes in an Irish Secondary School) where all need help with fees, some with clothes, some need everything, including food and food for their supporting family.
Last year we began teaching girls to make re-usable sanitary pads where culture and stigma was keeping girls away from school for days each month. This has been a huge success.
We collect and bring them in, for Saturday classes with eight excellent teachers, and have gradually introduced practical education on growing food without using expensive fertilizer or noxious chemicals. More recently we have added Tree Planting to our mix of Climate Smart Agriculture.
SJOG College of Counselling make some of their students available to us each weekend, which is a vital additional service. We have Holiday-time Camps, which adds a little fun and games, drama, singing and academic and practical horticulture classes as well.
In 2017 we added two new classrooms with a large room overhead for overnight stays, or as a refuge sometimes. Nothing fancy, just mats on the floor for sleeping, just a little better than at home. Food of course makes the experience like a five-star hotel.
Over time we realised that the issue of child protection needed to be addressed urgently. Everyone talks about it, there are Libraries of policies, but little or no action. In the past year Florence, our head of Project has endeared herself to the Department of Social Welfare and has been warmly welcomed by the new Victim Support Unit in Police Department (successfully resolving a case of the abduction of two girls: one for trafficking and another on illegal early marriage). The Head of this police Unit tells us that we are the only organisation who has come to them for support, who know all our girls, look after them and follow-up on all issues. Four members came to our Centre at the beginning of term to introduce themselves to all our girls and invited them to visit.
Of course, I am also so delighted with Academic achievements. Last Year out of the twelve who sat their final exam, three qualified for University, and two for nursing
This year we are awaiting results from the 42 who sat those exams but a few are already working with us as interns in the office and on our Postgraduate Horticulture & Enterprise program.