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A Future with Hope

A Letter from Cheryl Barnes, serving in Malawi

Winter 2021

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I am aware that there are many risks involved in living in Malawi during a pandemic, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. During this pandemic, I am taking full advantage of my time to identify and advocate for necessary policies that prioritize putting students and their academic achievement first.

My expansive assignment to improve the quality of education for five synods in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe was ambitious on its own. The challenges that were initially present have now included an unforeseen component; the education of girls whose lives were disrupted by unplanned pregnancies that occurred during the recent school closures as the pandemic spread.

In Malawi, prior to the pandemic, an estimated 46 percent of girls left school before Year 9, mostly due to early marriage and teen pregnancies. This data does not include the number of pregnancies resulting from schools being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When these cases are added together, the numbers could be staggering.

In a meeting with the Education Directors of the five synods using the Zoom platform, the Synods reported high numbers of expectant school-aged girls. The Education Director for the Synod of Zambia reported that almost every girl in a particular school under his jurisdiction had become pregnant, and many of them have married for economic reasons. If the fathers of the unborn children are young school-aged boys, they too may have to drop out of school to work to care for their new family.

Last October, I met a young pregnant couple who are in this situation. Fifteen-year-old Jennifer was six months along. Now, she and seventeen-year-old Junior are new parents. Jennifer is just one of many young girls who have dropped out of school because of pregnancy. Jennifer conceived during the early school closures in Malawi. Their son, Immanuel, was born in January.

Junior’s mother agreed to take care of Jennifer during her pregnancy and the young family continues to live with her.

Junior is in 9th grade and has returned to school. Jennifer has just passed her exams to go to the 8th grade; however, Jennifer’s opportunities to finish her education are now almost non-existent without outside support to cover the cost of school exam fees and uniforms.

The Government of Malawi covers tuition costs for students from grade one through grade eight. Exams are required to be promoted to the next grade level, and the fees to take the exams are covered by the government up to grade eight. After grade eight, students are required to pay tuition, along with school and exam fees, to continue their education.

Through a collaborative effort with the Education Directors of the five synods, we are beginning to develop a program with the schools under the CCAP umbrella that would allow new teen mothers the opportunity to return to school.

While this is only a short-term and temporary solution to a continuing societal problem, this program could eventually become the foundation for constructing boarding schools for pregnant teens, which would provide the opportunity for them to continue their education during pregnancy and after giving birth. With the gifts of generous individuals, congregations, and presbyteries, this project has the potential to change lives and positively impact entire communities.

The COVID crisis has affected so many people across the globe, but together we can inspire, educate, and empower young girls in Malawi to reach their fullest potential. None of us can imagine who we will touch or the young lives we will change, but every day I give thanks for this opportunity and for donors like you who make it possible. Together, we can give these girls a future with hope.

Please subscribe to my mission letters to remain updated on my work in Malawi. Go to my Mission Connections Page and click on the blue box and fill out the form to get an email update that something new is available from me. If you no longer wish to receive my letters in print format, write to mission.connections@pcusa.org to let us know.

Zikomo (Thank you)


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