LILONGWE, Malawi – “I started having an affair with a grown man when I turned 11. I was in the final year of my primary education,” recalls Mercy Jackson, a girl from the Chikhwawa District in southern Malawi.
Mercy’s parents are farmers who struggle to make ends meet. The eldest of six siblings, Mercy often went to bed hungry because the youngest had to eat first. She began the relationship hoping to ease the financial strains on her family.
But instead, Mercy became pregnant.
“I got pregnant just a few months into the relationship, and when I told the man about my condition, he denied being responsible and immediately ran away to Mozambique,” she says.
Having to shoulder another responsibility, she dropped out of school and took up menial jobs on neighbouring farms to make ends meet.
Today, with the support of the UN Joint Programme on Adolescent Girls (JPAG), Mercy, 14, is back in school.
Charting a new course for the future
By providing funding for scholarships and a range of activities, JPAG empowers girls to continue their educations and to take part in skills-training and community-development initiatives. It also increases awareness of their needs in the community and improves their access to sexual and reproductive health services.
Supported by UNFPA, the United Nations Children's Fund, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the World Health Organization, the programme was launched in Malawi in 2011. It also received initial funding from the UN Foundation, and is currently funded by the Norwegian Government.
According to Baldwin Mkumbadzala, the Chikwawa District youth officer who has been following Mercy’s case, the JPAG has changed her fate.
“With counselling and encouragement, Mercy went back to school [when her baby was two years old], and took her final examinations in primary school. She is now looking forward to going to secondary school,” he says. “This was made possible by scholarships provided by the JPAG.”
The programme has had a significant impact. Many of the girls who had dropped out school after becoming pregnant or because they could not afford an education have now gone back to school thanks to the scholarships.
The dropout rate for girls in the districts of Mangochi and Chikwawa – the two areas where the JPAG is currently being implemented – fell from 51 per cent in 2011 to 23 per cent by the end of 2013.
The JPAG scholarships pay for school fees and help to procure supplies, providing girls with a school uniform, a pair of shoes, a school bag, exercise books, pens and a calculator.
In addition, many girls have been taught vocational skills, such as how to bake, tailor and run hair salons, which are making them self-reliant, said Jean Mwandira, a UNFPA programme officer in Malawi.
Investing in adolescent girls, empowering communities
The multisectoral approach adopted by the JPAG has helped strengthen collaboration on the issues and challenges affecting adolescent girls, according to Ms. Mwandira.
For example, the programme has helped to sensitize traditional leaders and school management committees on the importance of girls’ education. As a result, some local leaders have instituted bylaws to combat child marriage – which often forces girls to leave school – as well as other forms of abuse within their communities.
Since its inception, the JPAG has directly supported education-related initiatives for 120 adolescent girls and reached more than 4,500 girls with information about sexual and reproductive health, in the Mangochi and Chikwawa districts of Southern Malawi.
For Chris Oyeyipo, a UNFPA technical adviser on sexual and reproductive health services, it is clear that investing in young people will pay dividends and provide a better future for all.
“When societies embrace youth as partners, we improve our chances of finding solutions to our most pressing problems,” he said.