2000 MLW: Classroom, School and Home Factors that Negatively Affect Girls' Education in Malawi
Author: Chimombo, J. et al; Center for Educational Research and Training
When the newly, democratically-elected government of Malawi declared Free Primary Education (FPE) in 1994, UNICEF was one of the first organisations to come forward to assist the government with teaching/learning materials. UNICEF has also assisted the government to implement, among other things, two projects, "keeping kids in school" and "closing the gender gap". The major objective of these community-based school projects was to improve the quality of primary education and ensure access to educational facilities within walking distance, especially for girls, in close collaboration with communities. This report is the result of a study that had attempted to find out what was happening in these areas.
Purpose / Objective
The study was aimed at shedding more light on the problems of girls' education in Malawi. Specifically, the study had the following five objectives:
- To provide sound analysis on the various practices at home, classroom and school that have a negative impact on girls' education and, consequently, make recommendations through which the negative practices can be addressed
- To reconstruct life histories of children, both girls and boys, in and out of school, within the context of their homes, schools and communities
- To mobilise the communities through interactive and participatory research methods and, in the process, empower them to think through the problems related to girls' education and formulate solutions to solve these problems
- To generate action plans together with school personnel, school committees and parents at school level
- To ensure that findings of the study are disseminated to all the zones in the study districts
The study used UNICEF-supported schools in Mangochi, Mchinji, Kasungu and Nkhata Bay Districts. Schools in Dedza were used for piloting. First, the schools had to be accessible and second, they were chosen to represent diverse settings. They represented 3 different main cultures: Yao, Chewa and Tonga. They also represented two kinds of locations: a lakeshore setting and an inland setting.
The following instruments were used in the study: Household questionnaire, School Information questionnaire, Focus group discussions, Classroom observation schedule, Seasonal calendar, Problem preference ranking, Problem solution matrix, Life histories, and Home observations. Two separate groups of boys and girls for focus group discussions were selected. Supervisors used class attendance registers to identify and select households that were to be visited. In all, there were 120 households per site. At the community level, the researchers mobilised different groups of men and women to participate in focus group discussions, problem preference ranking, and seasonal calendar. There were three groups of men and three groups of women at every research site. In all, the two teams observed 20 classes. There were five household observations from each site over a period of one month.
Key Findings and Conclusions
The conditions in the classrooms are not conducive for effective teaching and learning to take place. Pupils are mostly sitting on the floor or they are learning outdoors under harsh conditions, making the whole teaching-learning process difficult. The conditions provided by the schools are much more unpalatable than the homes of the children, and this makes the schools unattractive.
UNICEF has helped in providing schools within walking distance. While UNICEF's provision was aimed at standards 1 and 2, every community had expanded the schools to at least standard 4. However, the complementary shelters provided by the communities were of low quality. The major problem with the provision of incomplete primary schools is that they give the children a limited vision of the schooling concept. Many of them leave school after completing standard four, for example, thinking that they have finished the primary cycle.
In the eyes of parents, a school must have good buildings. The impression we got was that parents were not satisfied with the provisions made to these communities, in general. In Mangochi, where community participation is very weak, parents did not seem pleased with the structures provided, voicing concern that they felt cheated about the provisions made. In addition, the workmanship is very poor, perpetually in need of repair and, in many cases, rendering the blocks a hazard. The result was that teachers chose to conduct lessons outside for the safety of both the children and teachers themselves.
Further, the school environment demands that girls have proper dresses. Many girls mentioned that they could not mix with their friends who had better dresses. The inability of parents to provide proper dresses was causing some girls to leave school to work in order to acquire proper dresses and then come back to school later.
It was learnt that the availability of sports equipment is a great incentive for girls to go and stay in school. This is because the school is the only place in the community where children have access to footballs and netballs. Their provision seems to make a great deal of difference.
Working habits of the communities seem to manifest themselves in the schools. Girls are the ones doing most of the work in schools - hauling water, mopping in the classes - while boys are usually given much lesser jobs. This is a great constraint to the education of girls.
In most of the areas, girls are learning as second class pupils. Boys are aggressive. They bully and sexually harass girls and make the school a very hostile place for girls. Girls in Mangochi seem to expect this from the boys and did not complain about it. Apparently, the culture even condones this behaviour.
The major players in the girls' education saga are the parents. When they are not educated, there is an inter-generational transfer of lack of appreciation for the value of education. It is difficult for parents to impress upon the girls the need to go to school. Further, the nature of the households is that the father is mostly away so that the major influence on girls' education comes from the mother. Given the low literacy level of the mothers, they unwittingly give mixed messages to the girls.
The main goal of the socialisation process is to mould these girls into good mothers in future. As a result, mothers give work to the girl such as going to the grinding mill and other household chores even if this means that they have to absent themselves from school. If the girls refuse, they are told that they will 'eat their school'. What seems to emerge is that when the family cohesion is strong or when the father has a more positive influence, girls have more chances of attending and completing school.
In the communities, it appears that there is nothing positive happening in the lives of those who have gone to school to indicate that they are benefiting from having gone to school. Successful, educated people in the areas are rare. For these communities, it is the fishing and the farming that shape their activities and which are making the people successful. Those successful farmers or fishermen have never been to school. Until that time when their lives are influenced by education, it is difficult to see how the communities can appreciate the value of going to school.
Another dimension worth discussing is the initiation ceremonies. The periods for conducting them varied from one day to one week and, in Mangochi, it could go up to three months. This means that there are associated levels of absenteeism from school by the pupils involved.
Secondly, whatever counselling they get from the initiation, the pupils come back changed, both in personality and their perception of life in general. They are now grown ups and are expected to participate and contribute fully in the activities of the communities. They are expected not to play with children. The consequence is that their participation in class and in school, in general, will change and this affects their performance. Girls are the worst victims on this count. These initiation ceremonies also seem to orientate these pupils towards more sexual activities to the extent that marriage is the immediate thing that comes to their minds and this disturbs their schooling behaviour. When girls come back from initiation ceremonies, their behaviour changes and it appears that our mixed-group teaching strategies are counter to the socialisation processes in these societies. Girls seem to be pushed out of school by these strategies.
In general, these homes are poor. Often, girls have to work more than boys, have no proper dresses, or are being forced by circumstances into prostitution; and, indeed, the problem of hunger has its own associated consequences. Economic circumstances also force girls to help out even to the extent of selling their bodies. There is the fear among the families that once a girl reaches puberty, she is prone to getting pregnant out of wedlock. Pregnancy out of the wedlock is a disgrace to the family and most of the families will want to avoid it. The result is that the girls are forced into early marriage.
It is, therefore, recommended that any organisation offering primary schools provide a complete school and provide schools with teachers' houses. The architecture and construction of the school buildings should attract children. It is desirable that the schools be good-looking and more habitable than the dwelling places of the children. It is, therefore, recommended that the provision of schools, in future, look at a school in its totality.
The provision of simple materials, equipment and sports gear is imperative if the school is to appeal to girls. We, therefore, recommend that UNICEF make deliberate efforts to enhance the provision of these facilities.
The study also recommends that the curriculum be designed to interest the children in their local activities. It appears that the school has failed to interest children because they perceive school activities as alien to their everyday environment. The language and the discourse should then be compatible with what children are familiar with. We, therefore, recommend that attempts be made by the government towards making the school curriculum relate to the activities of the environment in which the schools operate. This has vast implications for teacher preparations.
It is evident that boys have taken the liberty to impose themselves on girls in and outside the classroom. Teachers and the school committees should be empowered to recognise any form of harassment and deal with them accordingly. In addition, the school system should devise means of discouraging boys from any behaviour that adversely affect girls in school. This can be done by the Ministry of Education through the intensification of the gender-sensitisation programs.
Poverty has been identified as another deterrent to girls' education in this study. It was evident during the wrap-up meeting that the communities do not want handouts to alleviate their poverty. Rather, they would prefer to have sustainable means of dealing with their poverty. To this effect, they would prefer to have access to credit facilities that would enable them to engage in some form of income-generating activity. It is, therefore, recommended that UNICEF and other organisations interested in girls' education consider this alternative.
Chiefs and school committees posses a lot of power which is not wielded to the benefit of school going children. They are the driving force behind the mwambo of the village. There is the need to sensitise these key stakeholders and empower them with appropriate support to take a lead in encouraging girls to participate more fully in education.
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