Girls scholarships: a way out of poverty

Empowering the girl child

By Gregory Gondwe
Nelia Phiri, focused in class at Mpamba Community Day Secondary School
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Malumbo Simwaka
19 November 2020

Nelia Phiri lives in a chaotic household in Makokota Village, in the northern lakeshore district of Nkhatabay. The youngest of five siblings, she is the only one still pursuing education as her brothers and sisters all dropped out before they reached secondary school.

She has older siblings who got married in their teenage years, and left their children in the care of their poverty-stricken mother. One of the children has special needs, which takes up a significant chunk of the mother’s time in caretaking.

“The situation is worsened by the fact that we lost our father four years ago. We live on our uncle’s land and he constantly reminds my mum that this is not our place and we should be ready for eviction any time,” explains Nelia.

Their household now has over 20 members, a common factor in Malawi, that often makes it difficult for children from poor families to finish school.

Nelia who is in Form 4 at Mpamba Community Day Secondary School, says she has resisted the temptation to make the mistakes that her siblings did, which pushed her family deeper into poverty. She has her sight set on the future and wants to become an IT expert.

With support from the Kids In Need of Desks (KIND) Fund, which enables girls to continue their education and reach their full potential, Nelia received a scholarship and is closer to making her dreams a reality. The Fund has benefited 6,500 girls in Malawi and currently 4,924 are enrolled and receiving scholarship support in the 2019/2020 school year, allowing them to fully attend secondary school.

“It is not all the time that such an opportunity avails itself. I know I am the one who will break my family’s poverty cycle, thanks to this scholarship which came my way when I was going to start Form Two,” she says.

Nelia used to help her mother in her potato garden, the proceeds of which would go towards paying school fees in installments. However, the funds were limited and she would end up missing much of the school year due to unpaid fees. She was on the verge of dropping out when the school administration selected her as a scholarship recipient. In addition to tuition coverage, Nelia also receives a uniform, hygiene supplies, books and stationery.

Nelia washing hands before she enters into her classroom at Mpamba CDSS
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Malumbo Simwaka
Nelia washing hands before she enters into her classroom at Mpamba CDSS

Impact of COVID-19

The government’s decision to shut down schools due to COVID-19 had a heavy impact. Nelia viewed it as a stumbling block on her way to success.

She learned more about the pandemic during school and experienced its effects when two people from her area were diagnosed as positive at the Mpamba Health Centre.

The school closure also affected Nelia’s personal studies as she was unable to do any work at night, as they do not have access to electricity or other light sources. These are some of the challenges she had to endure but is happy now that she can go back to school.

According to her head teacher, Catherine Chirwa, the KIND Fund makes a significant contribution to keeping girls in school.  

Catherine Chirwa, 57 years and head teacher at Mpamba CDSS
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Moving Minds
Catherine Chirwa, the head teacher at Mpamba CDSS

In her 35 years of teaching, she says she has seen hundreds of girls failing to pursue education due to inability to pay school fees.

“The emergence of COVID-19 was a big blow to education in general, but particularly of major concern to learners like Nelia because the environment they live in discourages them to pursue school and puts pressure on them to get married,” says Chirwa, who pointed out that it was more frustrating because schools were closed when her students were in the middle of mock examinations.

Six months of closure did not deter Nelia’s resolve to fulfil her dreams; several of her schoolmates did not return as they got married during the stay-home period.

The school has put in place measures that will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as well as prepare the Form 4 students for their final exams. They are also monitored to ensure that they are wearing masks, regularly washing their hands with soap and adhering to physical distancing while on the school premises.

“I am prepared for the national examinations and have been studying hard, not only to succeed, but to make everyone who has supported me proud,” Nelia say. “I am on a mission to attain a quality education that will improve the standard of my life. “