Seeing the whole person: Madalitso’s journey and our shared responsibility to support her

28 May 2021 by Harold Kuombolo, Link Community Development Malawi; Umba Zalira, Theatre for a Change Malawi; and Rose Woods, Supreme

TEAM Girl Malawi project supports 6,000 girls and 1,200 boys to study reading, writing and maths and go onto new opportunities such as further study or setting up their own business. Many of these girls will have never been to school or have dropped our early because of pressures such as early motherhood or poverty. However, in order to help the most marginalised girls re-engage with education, we have to understand them not just as “young mothers” or “children with disabilities”, but as a whole person whose many identities impact on their ability to access education. Seen in this way, the challenges – and solutions - lie not just within the education system, but within girls’ family lives and their wider communities. That's why TEAM Girl Malawi takes a holistic approach to supporting the most marginalised girls and sees their inclusion in education as a shared responsibility between ourselves, the girls' communities, businesses and government. 

Madalitso’s journey

Madalitso* is a typical learner in this project. She is 15 years old. She is an orphan with three younger siblings for whom she is responsible. Madalitso has never been to school and she has difficulties concentrating. She earns money to support her family by working at a bar, usually late at night. Madalitso has little knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, and is at risk of various forms of abuse such as child marriage and unwanted pregnancy. She was nominated to participate in the project by her community due to the many challenges she faces.

As part of our project, Madalitso’s journey starts at a Learning Centre, where Facilitators – trained secondary school graduates from the local community - deliver an accelerated literacy, numeracy and livelihoods curriculum, which is adapted from the Government of Malawi’s Complementary Basic Education (CBE) programme. Madalitso attends classes for two hours on four days each week.

The Facilitator’s responsibility starts with the creation of the learning environment itself. Learning spaces are selected by the Facilitator in consultation with the community, while the TEAM Girl Malawi staff help to make these safe and accessible to all learners. Modifications are made, for example, to enable wheelchair access or ensure children with visual impairments have appropriate lighting. In addition, the spaces themselves, and the journey to them, are assessed for safety risks. The timing of classes is decided by the girls and the Facilitators, taking into account learners’ other priorities in the home or work. Childcare and quiet spaces for breastfeeding allow girls with children to focus on their studies. In resource-constrained contexts, learning spaces are managed by the Facilitators in partnership with local communities who understand best the possible solutions to local needs and challenges.

Facilitators are trained to use an inclusive education approach which emphasises the role of an inclusive teacher as a problem-solver. They are responsible for identifying students who have problems with presence, participation or achievement, looking for the cause of the problem, and trying to help them overcome it. The project recognises that none of its teaching staff are fully trained special education teachers, and they have limited time and resources to support their students. However, over time, as they get to know their students, they build up good skills and knowledge on how to support their learning.

Madalitso benefits from having a teacher who understands that she has difficulties concentrating, so allows her to take extra breaks and repeats key concepts using different techniques to help Madalitso remember.

Madalitso also attends a Girls’ Club once a week which provides comprehensive sex education in a safe space. The curriculum covers topics ranging from menstruation, how sexually transmitted infections can be contracted, different methods of family planning, self-awareness, self-confidence, wellbeing and resilience. The approach is very participatory with activities using music, dance and fun.

Around Madalitso, the project has built a community of trusted adults who are responsible for child protection, safeguarding and reporting abuse. Made up of project staff, Mother Group volunteers, and local health, police and child protection workers, the trusted adults provide childcare, receive and respond to reports of child abuse, and visit learners and their families at home to provide support.

An interactive radio programme based on stories from the community, as well as community listening clubs bringing together parents, guardians and other relevant community stakeholders, collectively support discussions around how best members of the community can support, safeguard and protect the learners.

Recognising that poverty is a significant barrier, the project involves local businesses and social enterprises to support Madalisto. Partnering with local businesses increases access to essential products like reusable sanitary pads, and also expands skills and income-generation opportunities within the local community.

Madalitso’s aunt is one of the people who has been trained to produce reusable sanitary pads which are provided to all learners so they do not miss classes due to menstruation. Her aunt also uses her new sewing skills to produce school uniforms and bags which she sells to generate some income for Madalitso’s household. This means Madalitso doesn’t have to spend as much time working and can concentrate on her studies.

Supporting local businesses also has a positive impact on community development beyond the project. Madalitso’s aunt is now part of a local network of producers which not only provides the community with products that they need, but also strengthens the local economy by supporting other family businesses. This will help to reduce barriers for other girls like Madalitso.

After participating in the project for one year, Madalitso has made progress in her learning and is starting to plan for her future. She can now read simple sentences in Chichewa, is developing confidence with writing, and knows some key English words. She has improved numeracy skills which she uses to check her wages and to get the best prices at the market. Madalitso has become more confident and now volunteers to lead activities in class as well as ask questions. She can describe types of family planning and knows where to report abuse. When Madalitso graduates from the Learning Centre, she can choose to learn sewing skills like her aunt, and will have a local market for the products she makes. Alternatively, she can choose to enrol in primary school or become a trainee in another business with the support of local teachers, government staff, and business owners.

“I am now able to believe in myself and I am now able to make good decisions about my life,” says Madalitso.



*Names have been changed to protect identities