I’ve spent more time away from home than at home lately, but I’m so fortunate to have the chance to meet some incredible people on my trips to Africa to meet with our UN, government, and NGO partners. I hope you’re enjoying my introductions to them through these blogs, my Facebook posts, and our “Real Girls, Real Stories.”
It’s pretty exciting that we’re beginning our programs in Malawi - a lovely and populous country in southern Africa that is tucked between Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia. Malawi, however, has one of the worst records in the world in the areas of health and education, and a high level of poverty. These issues tend to hit girls particularly hard.
During our trip, we visited districts for the programs Girl Up is funding in Chikwawa and Mangochi. In Malawi’s southern region, Chikwawa is in the flatlands of the Shire River, with views of the mountains and miles of sugarcane. Girls in Chikwawa have high rates of teen pregnancy and HIV, and low levels of education. According to the district education officer, girls’ attendance in elementary school is roughly equal with boys, but that changes by the time they begin adolescence. He said that there are virtually no girls in middle or high school in Chikwawa. We are working with the UN and their local partner, Adolescent Girls Literacy Initiative, to ensure that girls who have dropped out of school or never got a chance to go to school, can learn basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Mangochi, also in Malawi’s southern region, lies along the shores of Lake Malawi - a beautiful lake that supports both the fishing and tourism industries. While the industries supply jobs and money for the community, there are negative consequences for young people. Boys often drop out of school in order to fish and make money. Some girls – also feeling the pressure to earn money – exchange sex with fishermen and tourists for food or money for their families. Mangochi has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in Malawi – 1 in 5 people over age 15 are infected. Girl Up will support the UN and local partners to provide life skills education, health services and information for girls, and form girls-only clubs in the district.
A highlight of the trip for me was a visit with the Mangochi chapter of the Malawi Girl Guides Association, which is an international version of the Girls Scouts. This group of girls, which ranged in age from 6 to 18, shared skits, songs and demonstrations of the skills and confidence they have gained through participating in Girl Guides.
In between the skits and songs, Doreen, the district youth officer, would stand up and do a call and response with the girls, that went like this:
Doreen: “It’s not easy, but…”
Girl Guides: “It’s possible!”
I think that sums it up perfectly: It’s not easy to build access to opportunities for girls in Malawi, but through the work of the caring and committed people we met here, and dedicated supporters of the Girl Up campaign like you, it’s possible!