How the Spotlight Initiative is changing lives of vulnerable girls in Malawi: Malaika’s Story

Increasing girls participation in education

By James Chavula
Spotlight Initiative
Spotlight Initiative/2020
02 December 2020

Malaika Phiri (not her real name) is a Form Two girl from Chiwembe village in Ntchisi, a tobacco-growing district in central Malawi. The 15-year-old is the last-born in a family of two girls and three boys.

When her father passed away in 2016, her mother remarried, and her stepfather stepped in to support the family. Taking advantage of her desperation, the stepfather started making sexual advances as a precondition for him to meet her school needs. Malaika’s resistance resulted in him no longer providing any support to her, forcing her to drop out of school.

Malaika’s mother distils kachasu (local beer), but the traditional spirit fetches too little to keep the girl in school.

 “I feared for my future because all my brothers and sisters, except the first-born sister who migrated to South Africa for better economic opportunities, dropped out in secondary school because mom was struggling to pay school fees for them,” she recounts. “In 2019, I spent six months at home while my friends were learning. When I returned to school, I went straight into Form Two, but only learnt for three weeks because I still had balance with my school fees,” she says. “The time I spent out of school, my friends were learning while I was at home. I had little time to study and more to work. Every time I opened books, teardrops soaked the pages. I constantly asked myself: Why always me?” she explains.

Her ‘out of school’ status continued when schools in Malawi closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fortunately for her, there was light at the end of the tunnel when schools reopened in November 2020. She got good news that she was going to be put on scholarship. Currently she is one of eight girls on scholarships from UNICEF under the Spotlight Initiative with support from the European Union (EU).

Malaika is grateful for the Spotlight Initiative coming to her rescue when she needed it the most.  She laments that the struggles for school fees put poor girls at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse that lead to teen pregnancies, child marriages, high school dropout rates and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

The scholarship covers school fees, uniforms including shoes and socks, school bags, sanitary pads and other basic educational supplies to ensure every girl learns.

 “The scholarship came at the right time.  Every time the headteacher sent me home to collect fees, I felt sad and ashamed. I spent months  not knowing where the money would come from. This support increases my chances to remain in school and achieve my dreams. I am thankful and I will show it by working harder in class,” Malaika says.

UNICEF, UNDP, UN Women and UNFPA are spearheading the Spotlight Initiative, launched by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in September 2017.

The scholarship seeks to increase girls’ participation in education as evidence shows that keeping girls in school does not only protect them from sexual violence, including early pregnancies and marriages but also empowers them to challenge social norms at their communities.

The aspiring journalist calls for an end to rampant violence against girls and women, one of the most devastating human rights violations in sub-Saharan Africa, including in her rural setting.

“When girls are out of school due to lack of fees, they start thinking about getting married or end up being abused by anyone who can give them money. This shatters their dreams, and exposes them to violence and worsened poverty,” Malaika states.

Her mother, Agnes Phiri, hopes the scholarship will encourage the selected girls not to marry young—as did her second-born, who now has four children— but rather complete secondary education, which provides them better opportunities in life.

 “When my daughter got married aged 16, I blamed myself for failing to keep her in school. Since my husband died 14 years ago, I have struggled to raise five children singlehandedly,” she recounts.

For the widow, the scholarship is “a prayer answered”.

“With this assistance, Malaika has no reason to rush into marriage. She is intelligent and determined to catch up with her friends and achieve her dream. Every time she was expelled from school because of our financial hardships, I couldn’t eat while she was weeping. If she stays in school and works hard, she will lift herself out of poverty and give me a hand up too.”