From the page to the schoolroom: Monitor readers send six Malawian girls to school

In the summer of 2005, I met Anne Bonefesi, a 14-year-old girl in Malawi who tended her siblings rather than attending eighth grade. Her parents, like most in her community, lacked the funds to send girls to school beyond the seventh grade ("What it's like to live on $1 a day," July 6, 2005). Monitor readers asked me to help Anne and other girls like her. With pledges from readers, I set up the Advancement of Girls' Education Scholarship Fund (AGE) to place girls in schools offering eighth through 12th grades. The fund pays the girls' school fees and all associated costs.

This summer, which marks AGE's first anniversary, I traveled a dusty rural road one hour from Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, to greet six grinning girls – the first cohort of AGE scholars supported by Monitor readers. Anne greeted me wearing a fresh white dress and a self-assured smile stretching from the depth of one dimple to another.

Anne and fellow scholar Velenesi Kadnensi live together in town and attend 8th grade at the Chitikula Full Primary School. Just down the road, Efelo Sekani, Victoria Kalonga, and Alifosina Chilembwe, three of AGE's high school students, share a room and attend the Chitikula Community Day Secondary School, where Efelo is in 10th grade, and Victoria and Alifosina are in ninth grade. Because of her outstanding grades, the sixth AGE scholar, Matilda Chalcalca, continues her education in the 11th grade at the select government boarding school in the capital, Lilongwe Secondary School for Girls.

Efelo, the ringleader of the group, told me, "I have seen a change in myself. Before, there were a lot of things impinging on my academic performance. Now I don't have to do a lot of chores and so I can concentrate." Alifosina added, "Living in a room near school helps because we don't arrive at school late, and we can go back to school and study at night."

The course work in all public schools is determined by the Ministry of Education, and is oriented toward both urban and rural life. So, in addition to learning English – a requirement for many urban jobs – this year the ninth grade girls learn about factors of production and the effects of soil conditions, capital, labor, and management on farming yields. The scholars have completed their second of three terms this year.

The girls have the opportunity to be the first in their village to graduate high school, but they face formidable challenges. They are setting a precedent, so they don't have older females who've gone before them to rely on for advice. They struggle to hear their teachers in classrooms bloated with more than 100 students. And they've had little exposure to English speakers, so they have a lot of catching up to do in school.

Despite their challenges, the AGE scholars have grown tremendously. The girls have developed a single-minded focus concerning their studies and embrace a collective responsibility to promote the importance of education in their community. Joseph Siyeni, the headmaster of the primary school that Anne and Velenesi attend, reports that the girls are in the "top half of their class, they are wellbehaved, and they are improving." The agriculture teacher of the high school, Mr. Leston Nkhoma, reports that "Efelo, Victoria, and Alifosina are hard-working and are improving." Matilda is doing very well in the competitive Lilongwe Secondary School for Girls, and is currently ranked 57 out of the 163 11th graders.

But they will have to continue to work hard to keep up. AGE advocated on behalf of Efelo, Alifosina, and Victoria – the high school girls in Chitikula – and so they will be transferred to a better-resourced boarding school. Anne and Velenesi – AGE's eighth-grade scholars – are also doing extra work, as they will take primary school exams at the end of the third term. Based on their results, AGE will work with Malawi officials to place Anne and Velenesi in the best possible school.

Xanthe Scharff is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., where she studies International Development.

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