Scholarships bring hope for school girls in Malawi

Keeping girls in school

Lulutani Tembo
Headteacher Mr. Chitseko (R), alongside Aisha and the deputy headteacher at the new hostels constructed under the Spotlight Initiative
UNICEF Malawi/2022/Tembo
26 March 2022
Aisha on the bike she uses to ease her commute to school
UNICEF Malawi/2022/Tembo
Aisha on the bike she uses to ease her commute to school

To make it to school on time, Aisha Mussa* had to get up long before dawn. She would complete her chores, fix herself a simple breakfast and then walk for hours in the dark.

“Because my school was so far away, I had to get up very early in the morning,” she says. “But I was determined to complete my education, so I had no choice but to walk.”

Walking long distances to school is just one of the barriers facing secondary school girls in Malawi. But if they stay at home, they risk gender-based violence and being forced into early marriages.

While Aisha was determined to continue attending the Puteya Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in the eastern district of Machinga, her parents lacked the money they needed to pay for her school fees and exams costs.

"I had no money to pay for my Standard 8 exam fees. The guy I started seeing offered to pay. But before my results came out, I realized I was expecting a child. Then I found out I passed my exams. I felt so hurt."

It was about this time Aisha learned about the Spotlight Initiative. Being implemented by UNICEF and other UN agencies, the 500 million euro global initiative provides scholarships to girls and is designed to protect them from gender-based violence, including harmful social norms.

In Malawi, the multi-year initiative, funded by the European Union, aims to have a significant impact in the lives of women and girls in six districts across the country.

Say Aisha: “My family could no longer afford to pay school fees and my mother went to explain my situation to the headteacher. He told her that I would qualify for a Spotlight scholarship. This is what has been supporting me to date.”

“I felt so good to receive a scholarship. It would've been a real struggle to find the money for school fees.”

As the first child in her family to go to secondary school, Aisha was very excited. The scholarship provided her with a schoolbag, shoes, uniforms, exercise books, and sanitary pads.

Even better, it is expected that Aisha will take a spot at a new hostel being built at her school with funding from Spotlight, meaning she will no longer have to walk there from home.

"I am looking forward to moving into the hostels because I live very far from school. When you're staying in a hostel, your focus is on school and learning. You don't have to worry about doing house chores. My focus will simply be on learning."

Dyton Chitseko, head teacher at CDSS, says the hostel will accommodate about 96 female students and will go a long way to protect girls and keep them in school.

“The issue of distance makes the children vulnerable and puts them at risk of experiencing violence and sexual harassment as they walk to and from school, particularly the girls,” says Chitseko.

“We expect the hostel will create a safe space for students and give them more time for learning and improving their grades.”

He said having girls stay on campus was also likely to contribute to a reduction of teen pregnancies.

So far, hostels are under construction at Puteya, Mpatsa and Magoti secondary schools in Machinga and Nsanje Districts. Furthermore, 364 girls benefit from Spotlight scholarship in the six districts.

Simon Jan Molendijk, UNICEF Malawi chief of education and adolescents, said some 31 per cent of girls in Malawi’s rural areas have a child by the time they turn 18.

"To reverse this trend, Spotlight is investing in scholarships for girls. At the same time, we are establishing girls-only hostels and toilets. We believe these changes will reduce school dropout rates and promote better educational and health outcomes for girls,” says Molendijk.


*Aisha Mussa is not her real name.