MALAWI: Focus on impact of poverty, AIDS on schooling
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
Girl selling mangos - she is one of nine children raised by her grandmother for the death of her parents
BLANTYRE, 28 August (PLUSNEWS) - Poverty, hunger, and AIDS are threatening Malawi's free primary education programme, one of the key reforms introduced by the government which came to power eight years ago.
Joseph Matola, the director of basic education in the Ministry of Education, said that of 1.2 million pupils who enrolled in primary schools in 1994, 900,000 had by this year dropped out. Although the government had scrapped primary school fees to encourage schooling, there were still hidden costs, such as exercise books and textbooks. For poor families, those costs, and the loss of potential earnings from child labour, have undermined the government's education drive.
At Ndirande Local Education Authority (LEA) in Blantyre, the country's commercial centre, 1,589 pupils registered for standard one in 1994. Only 349 made it to standard eight, a headmaster, Francis Manjanja, told IRIN.
Malawi's schools are in crisis. The infrastructure was not in place to cope with the demand for free education when it was first introduced. Despite the high dropout rate, classes are overcrowded, teachers de-motivated, and equipment in short supply. Ndirande township, for example, has a population of 80,000 school-age pupils, but only seven primary schools.
Manjanja said his school had 20 classrooms for 126 classes. "This is why over 100 classes are held outside. Since most of the pupils learn outside, they do not learn comfortably. They are exposed to harsh weather conditions such as dust, sun, cold and heat. During the rainy season, teaching is greatly disturbed and, as such, absenteeism is high and so is pupil dropout," he said.
"This has been worsened by the current food crisis in the country. Most of our pupils don't have good clothes and shelter either. Some of their guardians exacerbate their problems by forcing them to find piecework to supplement family incomes," Manjanja added.
About 3.2 million Malawians, or 28 percent of the population, are in need of aid following two consecutive poor cereal harvests, which have sharply reduced food availability, and driven prices beyond the reach of vulnerable families.
The drought-induced food crisis has also been exacerbated by underlying poverty. In 2000, 48 percent of children aged under five suffered from stunting due to chronic malnutrition. HIV/AIDS, which affects 16 percent of adult Malawians, has deepened existing poverty, reducing the ability of parents to care for their children, and ultimately leaving them orphaned.
Mary, 14, and her two younger sisters are AIDS orphans. They lost their father in 1992 and their mother three years later. They now live with their grandmother, who is too old to work, in a squatter home coated in black soot from their cooking fire, in the middle of Ndirande township.
"Sometimes we don't have food. Sometimes we don't have money to buy water, which costs 1.40 kwacha [one US cent]. Sometimes we go through the whole day without food and find it the following day," Mary told IRIN, as she sat next to a dying fire made from palm fronds rather than "expensive" charcoal.
Mary attends standard five at Ndirande LEA primary school. Her 12-year-old sister, Mwaiwawo, is in standard two. But the chances of these two girls completing their primary education were remote, acknowledged Manjanja.
When Manjanja first visited Mary's home, "we found them sleeping literally on the floor, a dusty floor, covering themselves with a fertiliser sack".
The development benefits of education, especially for girl children, are well documented. Educated mothers not only raise healthier children, but also play an important role in curbing the spread of HIV. However, the impact of Malawi's poverty has threatened that goal.
"It is in this way that some girl pupils start working as commercial sex workers. Other orphans are stopped from attending school in order to sell commodities at the market to earn some income. Last year we had a standard six girl of 13 who was pregnant. This year we have a standard four girl of 13 who is pregnant," Manjanja told IRIN.
Manjanja said his primary school had 2,601 orphans, mainly as a result of AIDS, many of whom faced similarly dire conditions. There are about 468,000 AIDS orphans in Malawi.
Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), visited Malawi earlier this month. She noted that the food crisis had brought "many problems", but pointed out that what was needed was "real political commitment to get children back to school".
In a limited response, UNICEF has launched a school feeding programme covering 85 community schools in Malawi's 10 districts, targeting vulnerable children.
Catherine Chirwa, the UNICEF project officer for education, said the school feeding programme was meant to retain pupils in class and help support vulnerable households. "Research has shown that when somebody continues learning and completes standard four, they'll attain permanent literacy ... It is difficult for girls to continue going to school if there is hunger," she added.