Earlier this month, I was in Malawi as part of a delegation of health and education partners who are dedicated to supporting the country’s development efforts.
The group included the heads of GAVI, Girls Not Brides, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the U.S. State Department’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Office of Global Women’s Issues.
The visit was an opportunity to continue the dialogue on strengthening cross-sector coordination and explore collaborative efforts to address the needs of adolescent girls.
We are motivated by our common commitment to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and recognition of the important intersection between the Global Goals, especially in health and education.
A commitment to support Malawi’s development
I first visited Malawi three months ago in September, when President Mutharika and I jointly announced a new GPE grant totaling US$44.9 million. The new GPE grant brought GPE’s total investment to Malawi’s education sector to US$134.9 million since 2010 when Malawi joined GPE.
The new grant focuses on the quality of early education and ensuring girls do not drop out of school, recognizing that keeping girls in school is key to achieving their full potential.
During that visit, President Mutharika and I began a dialogue on the importance of cross-sector coordination in health and education to address the barriers that adolescent girls face.
Adolescence is a pivotal time for girls everywhere, and even more so in a country like Malawi. While adolescence is a time of great vulnerability for girls, it is also an ideal point to accelerate the impact of development efforts.
It is with this in mind and my commitment to the president to find ways that we could provide more coordinated support for adolescent girls, which resulted in this second visit.
HIV prevalence is too high for girls in Malawi
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet young female sex workers, many of whom were HIV positive, health workers, mothers’ groups, teachers and school and community leaders to hear about the multiple barriers that adolescent girls and young women face.
Many girls are forced to drop out of primary school due to changes in their life circumstances, such as loss of a parent, that leave them with no means of survival or to support other family members.
In fact, in Malawi only 29% of girls who start primary school ever finish. For those girls who are able to continue primary school, the vast majority drop out between grades 6 and 8.
National data reports higher rates of drop out for girls beginning in adolescence due to early marriage, pregnancy, school costs, lack of sanitary facilities, long distance to school and family responsibilities.
In the districts we visited, the HIV positive rates among some target groups is as high as 75% and adolescent girls and young women are increasingly susceptible to vaccine preventable cervical cancer (PEPFAR, 2016). According to government statistics, half of the girls in Malawi will be married by their 18th birthday, with some as young as 9 or 10 being forced to marry.
Integrated approaches can address the multiple barriers that adolescent girls face
These issues are interrelated, and often compound one another. For example, girls who are married early are more likely to drop out of school and are at greater risk of HIV infection.
But school is also a preventive factor: girls who stay in school are less likely to contract HIV and marry young. Also, girls who experience sexual violence are more likely out of school, which makes them more vulnerable to HIV infection and early marriage.
Holistic and integrated approaches are needed to address the interrelated issues facing adolescent girls and young women.
Success in providing the tools and services that girls need requires action that spans government ministries and multiple sectors, and political leadership at all levels to break down the existing silos.
President Mutharika has made the bold decision to set up an inter-ministerial task force to promote links between health and education and strengthen coordination and collaboration to empower adolescent girls and young women.
This is an important first step and I applaud the president for his leadership on this issue and commitment to empowering girls to achieve their full potential.
In turn, partners have agreed to support an integrated focus on adolescent girls and young women in sector planning processes and to identify common indicators to measure impact in this priority area.
Keeping girls in school and healthy is an investment in Malawi’s development
The report of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity highlights that education, especially for girls, is the ‘vaccine’ for healthier populations. The report notes that keeping girls in school is one of the most effective interventions to reduce contraction of HIV.
One of the Commission’s key recommendations is greater investment in joint planning, investment and implementation across sectors to tackle the multiple barriers keeping children out of school and inhibiting their learning, including HIV/AIDS and child marriage.
As a Commissioner and education champion, the president’s commitment to coordinated action will help to shine a light on what it takes to address the complex and multiple barriers that adolescent girls face and will hopefully encourage others.
Ensuring that adolescent girls are educated, healthy, economically and socially empowered is critical to breaking the cycles of poverty between generations and for Malawi’s prosperity.