ONE Life, ONE Child and ONE Girl at a Time
In, 2012, the FBI announced that Camden, a city in New Jersey, USA , ranked first in violent crimes per capita of cities with over 50,000 residents in the country. Interestingly enough, this is the same place where her idea was born. During her internship with Urban Promise in Camden she was moved by the difference that the organization made in the city by addressing poverty and injustice (through providing a safe place and an opportunity for kids who the mainstream education system had sidelined). Clad in a blue t-shirt and a pink short ready for jogging, Doreen tells me how working with girls and children in general gave her an idea of how a similar program would help Malawi. And that’s how Magwero Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) Girl’s Empowerment Program was born.
At 26, Doreen runs the program in the villages of Chatata, Magwero and Mchezi in Lilongwe. This has made the community around the area to open up to the point that they even include her in development discussions and decision making meetings of the villages, which has played a major role in empowering girls to stay in school and is slowly killing forced marriages. The chiefs in the area now encourage parents to send girls to school telling them that it is their right to be in school and to decide on when to get married. She is a result- oriented person, very passionate about social justice especially issues concerning women, girls and children; and believes that, “silence about injustice means- you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.
Until you understand the education system in Malawi, you would never appreciate what Doreen is doing. Primary school education in government schools in Malawi is free and is made up of eight years- Standard 1 to Standard 8 and students between 6 and fourteen years. There are 3 school terms a year for primary schools, running from September to July. In standard 8, pupils sit for Primary School Leaving Certificate (PSLC) examinations, which they have to pass to graduate from primary school. Secondary schools in Malawi are made up of 4 years: Form 1 to Form 4 with three terms in each year which run from September to July; In Form 2 students sit for Junior Certificate of Education (JCE) examinations without which they cannot proceed to Form 3; and in Form 4 students sit for the Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) of which they have to pass to graduate from secondary school. Unfortunately the government secondary schools are not able to cater for the high enrollment resulting from Free Primary Education.
Community Day Secondary Schools are government mixed schools which are built by the local communities but normally funded by the government. They are basically poorly furnished with very little teaching and learning materials, and in most cases these schools use existing primary school facilities i.e. the primary school operates in the morning while secondary school takes over the rooms in the afternoon. They are normally very basic and mostly found in remote areas, although a few exist in the cities but since the majority of Malawi’s population live in rural areas, there are plenty of CDSS’s among them. Looking at Magwero CDSS where Doreen is focused I see that it is not different from other CDSS’s: it has 4 classroom blocks (a block is a 6m by 7m building), two of which have no doors; the window panes are empty due to glasses being broken and part of the roof appears sagging possibly giving in to heavy rains and the wind in general.
There are more girls dropping out in CDSSs as compared to the government day or boarding secondary schools. Recently at a certain CDSS, six female students failed to sit for this year’s JCE examination because they were pregnant, imagine a Form 2 class in a school having 6 pregnant girls. And barely a month later was it reported that, in the district of Mulanje, twenty- eight secondary school girls got pregnant this year. As such, teenage pregnancy is another issue she is indirectly dealing with.
The program is free and usually sponsors girls in primary and secondary schools; they get sponsors for individual students to help out with essentials like clothes, accommodation and even tuition fees. They also run after school programs which focus on helping students with learning difficulties to get a minimum MSCE. For those awaiting their MSCE results or college sponsor ship they run Job Training programs by employing them to run the after school program and in return the students receive a monthly stipend. Doreen also runs a mentor ship program whereby she gets different high achieving women to talk to the girls and occasionally take them on trips to different companies as an inspiration. Recently, they bought land in one of the villages where they built school blocks to open a secondary school; after realizing that some students walk about an hour to get to school.
The program caters for Standard 8 dropouts and a number of victims of early marriages among others. Since they started five years ago they only have close to ten girls who dropped out of schools due to pregnancies, otherwise the rest successfully finished secondary school to the point that they have sent six girls to various colleges in the country. Even with all that she is doing, the program still fails to fully produce its desired purposes purely because most parents don’t take an active role in the education of their children.
Doreen is optimistic that she can change Malawi one life, one child and one girl at a time, “Small actions make great differences, I want to be part of the solution in my community. I want to leave it much better than I found it and walk with people, especially girls, through their struggles”, she says, with a look that makes me believe she means what she says.