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For Malawi girls, high school is only the first hurdle

A small group of girls funded largely by Monitor readers aims to make the most of their opportunity.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 2007

Several women in this rural Malawi village participated in an advisory council to decide which girls would receive secondary-school scholarships.

Danna Harman


Bowa, Malawi

Matilda Chakaka is about to become the first girl from her village to finish high school. Her usually serious face breaks into a quick, shy smile. "I am better in biology than my parents and also better in math." She considers. "And in reading, too. Even that."

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Two years ago, following a story in the Monitor about what it's like to live on $1 a day in the rural Malawian village of Bowa, readers wrote in asking how they could help. Within days, 20 readers contributed $1,500, and a small fund was soon set up to send a few of the village's girls to secondary [high] school. This fall, the first of those girls – Matilda – is scheduled to graduate.

The project spawned a small aid group unaffiliated with the Monitor that has hundreds of supporters and ambitious plans to double donations by next year. Today, the Advancement of Girls Education Fund (AGE) has a new executive director, an advisory board, four volunteers, and, with the help of a local Malawian partner group, it is sending 17 girls to school, five of them from Bowa.

"Children should be in school, they should be exploring," says Marisol Pérez, an education team leader for the US Agency for International Development in Malawi. "And whether it's USAID, large private foundations, or a small [nongovernmental organization] like AGE – they are all addressing real needs and it all helps."

In 1994, primary education in Malawi became essentially free, but secondary school tuition still costs about $200 a year, putting it out of reach of the average Malawian, who lives on less than $160 per year.

Moreover, the gender gap remains high, with those who can afford to send a child to secondary school typically choosing to send sons, who, it is believed, will later have higher earning power.

Twenty percent of Malawian boys graduate from secondary school, while only 11 percent of the country's girls do, according to the Malawian statistics office.

AGE estimates it costs about $725 a year to send a girl to secondary school, taking into account books, school and personal supplies uniforms, and pocket money.

To raise the money for these scholarships, AGE has so far relied on small independent donations – $20 here, $40 there – to keep going.

It's not an easy system to sustain, and it's unclear whether AGE will be able to take more scholars into the program come the new term.

But those involved are planning new fundraising efforts and grant applications. They are ambitious to remain independent and even expand. "We make sure to keep our overheads low," says Sarah Lamce, AGE's volunteer operations director. "And we are focused on these girls, each and every one."

Secondary school is difficult

Matilda was a top student in the Bowa village primary school – but secondary school has proved a challenge. She goes to the Lilongwe Girls Secondary School in the capital – a sprawling institution with rundown classrooms and long, dim dorm rooms in which 30 or so girls sleep side by side, doing homework, snacking and gossiping all sitting cross-legged on their beds.

"I would like to go to Bunda College of Agriculture next year," her best school friend Mercy Chaonaine, a tall, outgoing girl, says. "Me too," echoes Matilda.

But later, the C-plus student admits she is not sure she will get in anywhere and has no idea what she wants to study anyway.

"My ambition was to be a doctor but I have difficulties in mathematics and physical sciences so I have changed my ambitions," she says.