A push for keeping adolescent girls in school in Malawi and Zambia

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Secondary School students from southern Malawi gather for their general assembly (Christin Mcconell/World Bank)

I asked Martha, a Form Four (Grade 12) student at a secondary school in southern Malawi, if she considered herself a role model. Completing her education hasn’t been easy for Martha – being sent home for weeks at a time when her family struggled with school fees, trying to avoid the distractions of boys, and staying on top of challenging coursework are among the challenges she deals with.

She replied: “Yes, because I am at high school finishing my secondary education. Most girls in my village stop going to school after primary school. I am the first to be going to secondary school; I have courage from enduring so many things.” Being a role model for younger girls from her village to stay in school has helped in keeping her motivated.

As a graduate student, I spent the summer of 2009 living and working at a public all-girls boarding school in Mulanje, Malawi interviewing adolescent girls like Martha who were recipients or potential recipients of a scholarship fund by a small NGO. That summer was my first introduction to Malawi, a country that has become near and dear to my heart (and World Bank work program) ever since.

The challenges faced by Malawian adolescent girls in completing their education remain similar to the personal stories I heard seven years ago. Thankfully, the dialogue has spread to high-level policy makers in the region.
For World Population Day, on June 11, 2016, my colleagues and I were motivated by the theme of “investing in teenage girls for a more just, stable and peaceful world” to share a series of policy briefs on adolescent girls with high-level champions, government officials, traditional chiefs, academics, development partners, NGOs, and civil society in Malawi.

It was part of the Programmatic Analysis of Adolescent Girls in Zambia and Malawi.  A World Bank team comprised of experts from education, health, gender, and development economics has been engaging with key leaders in Malawi and Zambia presenting country-specific findings and international best practices on the four inter-related areas of:  (i) keeping girls in school, (ii) equipping out-of-school girls with skills, (iii) beginning a family and adopting a healthy lifestyle, and (iv) addressing the early childhood needs of children born to teenage mothers.  

Below are the key findings from the situation analysis on keeping girls in school in Zambia and Malawi that are the everyday reality to Martha and her Malawian and Zambian peers:

  • Overall education quality is poor. Malawi and Zambia pupils are among the lowest performers in the region according to the 2007 Southern African Consortium for Measuring Educational Quality results.
  •  Dropout rates remain similar by gender until upper primary. In Malawi, the dropout rate for Grade 7 females was, on average, 19.5 percent over the past five years, compared with 11.2 percent for males. In Zambia, Grade 7 girls dropped out of school more than double the rate of boys; by Grade 11 girls drop out more than three times the rate of their male peers.  
  • Socio-economic status matters. Direct and indirect school costs are prohibitive for poor families. The net enrollment rate for secondary school students in Malawi is below 5 percent for the lowest income quintile. In Zambia, 77 percent of adolescent girls from extremely poor households are enrolled in school in comparison with 80 percent from moderately poor and 88 percent from non-poor households. 
  • Pregnancy, economic hardship, and marriage are the main reported reasons that girls drop out of school. For both countries, not surprisingly, the proportion of girls dropping out due to pregnancy increases by grade level. That being said, self-reported administrative data on dropouts can be misleading as many of the causes are inter-related; further investigations are needed.
Several ongoing initiatives in both countries are helping to keep girls in school. Government and donor-led bursary and cash-transfer programs are serving tens of thousands of girls in Malawi and Zambia. Re-admission policies for teenage mothers exist in both countries; in Zambia, this allowed a third of female dropouts from primary school and half from secondary to return to school in 2013-14 (in Malawi it is unclear how well the policy is enforced and how many students are able to return to school).
Long-term changes in education attainment likely require additional initiatives
One of the key challenges in Malawi and Zambia will be to both focus on girls before they reach puberty and to ensure that they get the financial, educational, and emotional support needed to complete primary and to transition successfully to secondary school.
For the most at-risk adolescent girls, comprehensive programs including mentorship, financial assistance, childcare support, and sexual and reproductive health services may be needed. Adolescent boys will also need support and guidance to invest in their own education and to value the education of their female peers as a way to build stronger families and communities.  Furthermore, demand-side interventions such as bursaries, cash transfers, and re-entry policies can have limited impact if the quality of education provided remains poor.
This Programmatic Analysis is hopefully the beginning of a long dialogue on adolescent girls for Malawi and Zambia. Both countries have some of the fastest-growing populations in the world and the cost of inaction is high. 
In Zambia, the analysis’ main conclusions helped inform the finalization of a new multi-sector policy for Zambia on ending child marriage. It also provided technical inputs to a component of the $65 million SP GEWEL project.  In Malawi, further discussions will be needed to best understand how to operationalize key findings through Bank-supported activities or other relevant channels.
I believe this work was unique in our truly multi-sectorial approach as well as the diversity of voices engaged in the policy dialogue. In our May 2015 Zambia workshop, relevant ministerial officials engaged in dialogue alongside representatives from civil society, donors, traditional chiefs, and… a very brave and articulate adolescent girl.
Catherine, who lives in Lusaka, shared her story with the workshop audience about becoming a teenage mother and dropping out of school to care for her son and young brother: “Looking back, I wished I had access to reproductive health information. It would have guided my actions as a teenager and given me support as I care for my baby so I could return to school.”   
Just like Martha in Malawi, Catherine is a role model for girls in Zambia advocating for more comprehensive services to help adolescents stay on track and in school.
Visit the World Bank’s website on  girls’ education.

Find out more about the World Bank Group’s work on education on  Twitter  and  Flipboard.


Christin McConnell

Education Specialist, World Bank Group

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