Make education safe for all: Let girls learn!

Anthony Malunga Gender, Violence Against Women and Girls

Oxfam’s Gender Justice Programme Coordinator in Malawi, Anthony Malunga, reflects on Malawi’s education system and on what can be done to protect girls in the classroom and support their aspirations.

Globally, education remains the key investment area needed by all countries to ensure they have current and future capacity for development. In Malawi, girls’ education is affected by multiple, socio-cultural and economic factors. Malaika*, one of the girls at a primary school in Malawi’s Phalombe district hopes that she will not become a victim of early marriage because it would damage her chances of becoming a nurse in the future.

Malawi has a three tier education system, with eight years of primary education, four years of secondary education and four years of post secondary college and university education. Along the course of education, boys and girls face many challenges that could lead to an end to their educational aspirations.

Malawian girls remain the most disadvantaged and least likely to complete their education. This is due to various reasons, some of which are the focus of this blog as we commemorate the 2016 theme of 16 Days of Activism: “From peace in the home to Peace in the World; Make Education Safe for All“.

Socio-cultural norms

The predominant socio-cultural norms in Malawi are one of the challenges that affect girls. The socially constructed norms at community and family level, related to early marriage, valuing boys more than girls usually disadvantage girls. More often than not, communities condone these negative socio-cultural norms. For example, where families are not able to support both the girl and the boy child in terms of school needs, the girl child would be disadvantaged by being married off early or granted no support for school in order to support the boy child’s education. To make education safe for all, the custodians of the socio-norms, the community leaders, need to be mobilized to challenge these negative social norms and reverse the status quo.

Stereotypical attitudes towards girls

Building girls’ self-esteem and assertiveness is central to creating a positive change

The attitudes of teachers, school workers, boys and the community at large all undermine girls’ education. These attitudes are manifested through sexual advances towards girls, which compromises their bodily integrity, exposing them to harassment and sexual vulnerability. In upper primary and secondary schools, girls drop out of school due to sexual harassment by some teachers, boys and community members including some school workers.

In colleges and universities, there is anecdotal evidence of girls being sexually abused by some male lecturers in order to let them pass their specific courses. This has affected them psychologically later in life. All of these conducts stem from stereotypical attitudes that place less value on girls and women as not deserving the same support, respect and protection as boys and men. Stakeholders and the government can only support the need to let girls learn by continually demystifying these stereotypes and punishing the perpetrators without impunity.

Low self esteem among girls

More girls than boys have low self-esteem due to the socio-cultural norms, historical disadvantages and stereotypes towards girls which affect their ability to express themselves. Years of low self-esteem puts a further barrier between the Malawian girls and the pursuit of education. If a girl is known to be assertive and demonstrate a level of self-esteem they are often harassed for not conforming to social expectations.

Building girls’ self-esteem and assertiveness is central to creating a positive change in the lives of girls and to ensuring that education is safe for all.

Inadequate implementation of education policy, laws and guidelines

Malawi has a reasonably good number of laws and policy documents in the education sector. But the challenge to implement policies and strategies to end sexual and gender based violence remains. For example, the effective implementation of the teachers’ code of conduct in schools could go a long way in ensuring that errant teachers who sexually abuse their (female) learners are punished and that girls are protected. If properly implemented the National Girls Education Strategy could be a game changer in safeguarding girls’ education.

There is need for deliberate political will to enforce the existing laws, policies and regulations to ensure girls remain in Malawian schools.

Empowering girls

Considering the gravity of the highlighted challenges that can affect girls’ education; Oxfam in Malawi jointly supported by Comic Relief is collaborating on a three year project.

Together with Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) and the Centre for Alternative for Victimised Women and Children (CAWVOC) we are working to combat sexual and gender based violence to help keep girls and boys in Malawian schools through an improved education project in Phalombe, Balaka, Dowa and Mzimba. The project aims to address the highlighted challenges through various activities in the communities. The communities, district and other stakeholders have welcomed the project which started in August 2016.

Diatou Ndiaye