Why my life became unbearable as I watched my friends going to school

30 June 2017
Edna (let) with one of her friends, whom she encourages to avoid relationships that could lead to pregnancy and dropping out of school. © UNFPA Malawi / Henry Chimbali

It started out as playing. She had a boyfriend and, due to a lack of information on sexual and reproductive health and the risk of unprotected sex, her life soon changed.

Edna was not sure if she would get pregnant but eventually, just 16 years old and in standard five, she conceived a child. As a result she dropped out of school.

Her boyfriend is now in form one at secondary school in her community.

Life was unbearable as I had to watch my friends go to school while I was working in the garden and doing household chores.

“When I fell pregnant, my mother refused (to let) me go and stay with the boy responsible. Life was unbearable as I had to watch my friends go to school while I was working in the garden and doing household chores,” Edna says.

Nor were things pleasant for her during the pregnancy. Her health deteriorated and she found herself visiting the hospital more often. Eventually, she gave birth to a baby boy.

Having experienced life at home during her pregnancy and later, with a child beside her, she realised she belonged in school – and not, at her tender age, at home or as a wife.

Malawi has a relatively high maternal mortality ratio (number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births) of 439 (the global average is 216/100,000) and a total fertility rate of 4.4 (children per woman)(DHS 2015-2016). A strong contributing factor is the relatively high number of adolescent girls who give birth (136 per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 years, compared to 51/1000 globally).  Enrolment in secondary school is low for both girls and boys, at 33 per cent (net per cent of secondary school-aged children, 2000-2015; global average of 65 per cent).1

Returning to school after giving birth

Six months after delivery, Edna returned to school. She enrolled in standard six at Mkumba primary school in Mangochi district. Since then, she has been performing well in class and is happy to be learning once again.

At home, all that you hear is about marriage is its problems but here at school, you (can) dream of a better future.

"My mum stays with my child while I am in school; this is where I belong and not at home,” she says with conviction.

Edna believes being in school creates hope for a better future for her. “At home, all that you hear is about marriage is its problems but here at school, you (can) dream of a better future,” she says.

In her community, many girls who have fallen pregnant have dropped out of school and married. It is a rare occurrence for girls like Edna to return to school after giving birth. In this, her mother has been an inspiration for her.

Edna encourages her friends to stay away from relationships that could lead to pregnancy and dropping out. “I stand as an example to many girls and they learn from my experience, because I tell them what I have gone through,” she says.

She dreams of becoming a nurse and working in her community to help her people.

I am determined to follow up (with) a few others (who have dropped out of school) to come back.

Community taking action

Edna’s teacher, Jamila Njaidi, says the 16-year-old is determined to achieve her dreams. “Every time I see her, I am encouraged and I am determined to follow up (with) a few others (who have dropped out of school) to come back.”

Despite missing months of classwork after the birth of her child, Edna’s performance in class has improved to such an extent that, in the previous term, she placed third for academic achievement.

Other parents in the community surrounding Mkumba primary school are also realizing the importance of sending girls to school, Edna says. With support from mothers’ groups that have been strengthened through the UN Joint Programme on Girls' Education, there is greater follow-up on girls who drop out. The feedback on these efforts has been encouraging.

UN-JPGE ‘back to school’ campaign

The United Nations Joint Programme on Girls' Education (UN-JPGE) aims to improve and expand education opportunities for girls in Malawi. This is achieved by providing a holistic and human rights-based programme aimed at improving access, quality and relevance of education for girls in the districts of Salima, Mangochi and Dedza. One way of achieving this is to increase access to ‘second chance’ education for girls who are in or out of school, like Edna.

Without capacity building initiatives for teachers and mothers’ groups to ensure that girls who have dropped out of school for a variety of reasons return to school, Edna would never have had this opportunity. She would no doubt by now have joined the ranks of girls who are married off early and consequently, become vulnerable to her rights being violated and her potential for realizing her goals denied.

Thankfully for Edna, her aspirations are back on track.

By Henry Chimbali