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Girls still disadvantaged, despite free schooling

[Malawi] Woman and children at Market stall.
World Bank funds to accelerate social service delivery (IRIN)

Despite a decade of free primary education in Malawi, the number of girls dropping out of school continues to outstrip that of boys, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said in a new report.

"The main problem is that the free primary education policy does not translate into action on the ground. Making tuition free for pupils was not sufficient to take girls to school - there are other non-tuition costs, such as school materials, which parents have to pay," UNICEF's Head of Basic Education in Malawi Bernard Gatawa told IRIN.

Extra costs mean that poor families have to choose between educating boys or girls. In a culture of early marriages, and where women's rights are traditionaly subordinate, boys are usually given preference.

"These pupils are not dropping out of school, they are pushed out of school," Gatawa added.

The government has stressed the need to strengthen resources for the education sector. A senior official, Baxton Mpando, said: "As staff from the Ministry of Education we are aware that in the past 10 years government and its partners have taken measures aimed at improving primary education, and [the enrolment of] girls in particular." But, despite the efforts, there were still challenges in giving girls access to education, keeping them in school, and their educational achievement.

When free primary education was introduced in 1994, enrolment numbers jumped from around 1.2 million to over 3 million pupils. But the government appeared to have been caught by surprise by the response - there were not enough teachers, classes or learning materials, and the quality of education suffered.

"Shortage of classrooms, inadequate toilets, large numbers of unqualified teachers, inappropriate school curriculum, and division of labour in the home militate against girls' school performance," said Gatawa.

A study carried out in 2003 showed that 10.5 percent of girls who enrolled in school each year dropped out, against 8.4 percent of boys. Around 22 percent of primary school age girls are not in school, while 60 percent of those enrolled do not attend regularly.

Gatawa said he was optimistic that these problems could be tackled. Introducing life skills in the school curricula would empower girls to know their rights, while "giving powers to local communities, so that they discuss among themselves the dangers of some of the cultural traditions, will help in the long run to reduce school dropouts."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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