Dr Kate Jere, a Trustee of MMF, writes:
Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day, a day of celebration of women’s achievements. When working at the University of Malawi, women colleagues and I would leave our workplaces and, along with women all over the country, join together in church services and prayers: a time for singing, dancing, joy and reflection. And Malawi does have much to celebrate. Women are increasingly taking up leadership roles in government, with the first Female Speaker of the National Assembly elected in 2019; young female lawyers were at the forefront of the successful call for fresh elections in 2020, following vote-rigging by the previous government; maternal mortality rates have dropped dramatically and more girls than ever before are in school and learning.
Yet International Women’s Day, with its 2021 theme of #ChoosetoChallenge, also marks a call to action – and much remains to be done in Malawi to achieve gender equality. Although women play an active role in civil society, less than a quarter (23%) of parliamentarians are women. Whilst the constitution and recent legislation protects women’s rights, powerful social norms and customary practices undervalue women and girls and restrict their access to property, financial services and decent work. Women and girls face high levels of violence, and despite a 2017 constitutional amendment raising the age of marriage to 18, rates of child marriage are amongst the highest in the world, at over 40%.
Education, especially for disadvantaged girls, is an important catalyst in progress towards women’s empowerment and a more gender-just society. Keeping girls in school and – providing access to quality, inclusive education – can have powerful multiplier effects. Educated girls and young women not only have greater opportunities to fulfil their own potential, but can be powerful role models in their homes and communities, can challenge expectations for their role in society and make informed decisions about the health of themselves and their families. Recent research from Malawi shows that girls in school are less likely to experience violence and are at lower risk of child marriage and early and unintended pregnancy.
While Malawi has made great improvements in girls’ education over the last two decades, closing gender gaps in basic education, many adolescent girls fail to complete secondary education, dropping out before Form 4 and their national examinations: for every 100 boys in upper secondary, only 68 girls are enrolled. Social pressures compounded by school-related costs impact on girls’ ability to complete their education, with girls from the poorest households at the greatest risk of dropout. And as schools re-open again in Malawi following COVD-19 closures, ensuring girls get back to school has never been more important. Lessons from the Ebola crisis in West Africa have shown that extended school closures increase girls’ risk of early and unintended pregnancies, and result in permanent exit from education.
Mamie Martin Fund provides an important safety net for girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing vital support with school costs, transport and other necessities – greatly increasing their chances of staying in school and completing their education. Over 80% of MMF-supported girls have successfully completed their secondary school and gone on to thrive and make important contributions in their own right, like Stella, a frontline nurse; others, with the support of the Soko Fund, like Annie, have gone on to successfully complete a university degree – definitely something worth celebrating!