The not-so-easy task of educating girls

Female students at Khwalala Community Day Secondary School in 2007. (Credit: Michael Buckler)

By Michael Buckler special to Humanosphere

Good intentions don’t educate girls. International campaigns can unravel, leaving villages like mine in limbo. Beset by delays and bureaucracy, we lost a decade of progress. Our grassroots hack – a determined end-run around a broken system – could have been a difference maker.

Policymakers have heard our pleas from the front lines. Let Girls Learn, the U.S. government’s latest initiative to support girls’ education worldwide, features Peace Corps and its improvisational, community-led model. This bodes well for girls because, as I know firsthand, the traditional system can suffocate their struggle for equal opportunity.

I was a Peace Corps teacher in Khwalala Village, Malawi, from 2006 to 2008. Khwalala is a rural community, about 20 miles from Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capitol. Khwalala possesses all the spoils of bucolic Africa – an arid high valley, a vibrant weekly market and unobstructed views of distant mountains.

Peace Corps assigned me to Khwalala Community Day Secondary School to help complete a government-sponsored renovation and train teachers to use the school’s newly acquired educational assets. The African Development Bank, an intergovernmental organization like the World Bank, financed the renovation.

Students gather for an assembly at Khwalala Community Day Secondary School in 2007. (Credit: Michael Buckler)

Students gather for an assembly at Khwalala Community Day Secondary School in 2007. (Credit: Michael Buckler)

The renovation presented an opportunity to solve a longstanding problem: disparate outcomes for male and female students. Relative to boys, fewer girls graduated from primary to secondary school. In secondary school, a smaller percentage of girls than boys acquired the junior certificate of education or Malawi school certificate of education, honors earned after passing nationwide examinations.

This reality had dire consequences. Malawi school certificates of education were tickets out of subsistence farming and into professions like teaching and nursing. After earning the certificates, some village students (mostly boys) went on to earn college degrees and find good jobs. Many young women, on the other hand, fell behind as economic refugees.

The underlying causes were many. Although long distances from home to school plagued both sexes, boys were more likely to commute on a bicycle. Girls also faced intense pressure to drop out of school, get married, and perform domestic chores while at home. Girls who tried to overcome these obstacles by renting rooms near campus often faced unsanitary and unsafe living conditions, including sexual harassment from older men.

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Khwalala knew it had a problem and proposed a solution: on-campus boarding for female students. In early 2008, I helped community leaders write a grant proposal to USAID. The community would utilize the requested funds – about $8,000 – to convert the old library into a hostel, construct a bathhouse and outdoor kitchen, and purchase accoutrements of daily living. Student boarders, and all boarding facilities used by them, would be located within a secure, fenced campus.

The opening of the boarding facility depended entirely upon the completion of the school renovation.

The African Development Bank started the renovation in 2005, as part of a broader program to rehabilitate select schools across Malawi. To improve our little school, the bank budgeted about $625,000. Most students lived on less than $1.25 per day.

As we entered year four of the renovation, it imploded. As months ticked by, workers weren’t paid and materials didn’t arrive on time. When the project ground to a halt and workers disappeared, the truth emerged – the African Development Bank had fired the contractor (a Malawian from another district) for financial improprieties and said it was seeking a replacement.

Toward the end of my service, USAID approved the girls’ boarding proposal and disbursed the funds. The community quickly formed a project committee, donated labor and materials, and hired a local contractor. The boarding facility took shape.

A classroom at Khwalala Community Day Secondary School in 2007. (Credit: Michael Buckler)

A classroom at Khwalala Community Day Secondary School in 2007. (Credit: Michael Buckler)

Meanwhile, the African Development Bank renovation was lifeless.

Without a new library, we couldn’t convert the old library into a girls’ hostel. I completed my service and returned home in late 2008. Two years later, nothing had changed – the project was 68 percent complete, frozen in time.

In 2011, I got creative. Sitting on my bed in Washington, D.C., I opened my laptop and started searching for information about the failed renovation. I sent a couple of emails to African Development Bank officials based in Malawi. I may have mentioned that I was a lawyer.

The next day I received a message promising an “appropriate response.” After pressing for more information, I received another email explaining the delay: “This school is one of the 2 schools (out of 40) which could not be completed under the project. … The former contract was terminated due to poor performance of the contractor. … the project had to be closed to improve the performance of the Malawi portfolio.

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My jaw dropped. I admired the official’s honesty, but his email read like the bank cared more about portfolio performance than the education of Malawian schoolchildren.

One week later, I wasn’t surprised when the headmaster of Khwalala Community Day Secondary School sent word that a bank representative had visited the school and announced a resumption of the renovation – effective immediately. I smiled to myself; I may have gloated.

For a brief moment, I dreamed about the girls’ boarding facility coming to fruition.

Then teachers at the school reported that the district education manager opposed the boarding facility. He (like his female predecessor) didn’t want girls living on campus.

We lost.

I realized that I had built a Peace Corps monument, a project that made me feel accomplished but didn’t provide a sustainable solution to others. I vowed never to make that mistake again.

The bank completed its renovation in 2014, nine years after it started. While female students enjoyed new classrooms and learning materials during the school day, before and after school, they continued to struggle. Despite the community’s efforts to fix the underlying problem, very little had changed.

But Malawi is full of surprises.

Earlier this month, Gertrude Mutharika, the first lady of Malawi, and representatives from Plan International visited Khwalala to break ground on a new girls’ boarding facility, as part of a nationwide campaign for girls’ education. Workers will construct a girls’ hostel on campus and incorporate the kitchen and bathhouse constructed by the community in 2008. The district education manager has reversed his earlier position and become a supporter.

If all goes well, girls’ boarding will come to Khwalala in 2016. The price tag is $65,000. I will always wonder whether it could have happened sooner, cheaper and better.

bucknerMichael Buckler is the CEO and General Counsel of Village X, a nonprofit that crowdfunds direct donations for community-led projects in Malawi and Ghana and provides real-time feedback on donor impact. He is also the author of From Microsoft to Malawi: Learning on the Front Lines as a Peace Corps Volunteer (Hamilton Books 2010). Michael lives in Washington, D.C.

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