How Zambia And Malawi Are Keeping Adolescent Girls In School

The challenges faced by Malawian adolescent girls in completing their education have remained the same over the years – lack of school fees, trying to avoid distraction from boys and staying on top of challenging coursework.

For World Population Day, on June 11, 2016, the World Bank was motivated by the theme of “investing in teenage girls for a more just, stable and peaceful world” to share a series of policy briefs on adolescent girls with high-level champions, government officials, traditional chiefs, academics, development partners, NGOs, and civil society in Malawi.

Girls Education-Zambia-World Bank-Schoolnet Uganda

It was part of the Programmatic Analysis of Adolescent Girls in Zambia and Malawi.  A World Bank team comprised of experts from education, health, gender, and development economics has been engaging with key leaders in Malawi and Zambia presenting country-specific findings and international best practices on the four inter-related areas of:  (i) keeping girls in school, (ii) equipping out-of-school girls with skills, (iii) beginning a family and adopting a healthy lifestyle, and (iv) addressing the early childhood needs of children born to teenage mothers.

Below are the key findings from the situation analysis on keeping girls in school in Zambia and Malawi that are the everyday reality to Martha and her Malawian and Zambian peers:

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  • Overall education quality is poor. Malawi and Zambia pupils are among the lowest performers in the region according to the 2007 Southern African Consortium for Measuring Educational Quality results.
  •  Dropout rates remain similar by gender until upper primary. In Malawi, the dropout rate for Grade 7 females was, on average, 19.5 percent over the past five years, compared with 11.2 percent for males. In Zambia, Grade 7 girls dropped out of school more than double the rate of boys; by Grade 11 girls drop out more than three times the rate of their male peers.
  • Socio-economic status matters. Direct and indirect school costs are prohibitive for poor families. The net enrollment rate for secondary school students in Malawi is below 5 percent for the lowest income quintile. In Zambia, 77 percent of adolescent girls from extremely poor households are enrolled in school in comparison with 80 percent from moderately poor and 88 percent from non-poor households.

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  • Pregnancy, economic hardship, and marriage are the main reported reasons that girls drop out of school. For both countries, not surprisingly, the proportion of girls dropping out due to pregnancy increases by grade level. That being said, self-reported administrative data on dropouts can be misleading as many of the causes are inter-related; further investigations are needed.

Several ongoing initiatives in both countries are helping to keep girls in school. Government and donor-led bursary and cash-transfer programs are serving tens of thousands of girls in Malawi and Zambia. Re-admission policies for teenage mothers exist in both countries; in Zambia, this allowed a third of female dropouts from primary school and half from secondary to return to school in 2013-14 (in Malawi it is unclear how well the policy is enforced and how many students are able to return to school).

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Long-term changes in education attainment likely require additional initiatives

One of the key challenges in Malawi and Zambia will be to both focus on girls before they reach puberty and to ensure that they get the financial, educational, and emotional support needed to complete primary and to transition successfully to secondary school.

For the most at-risk adolescent girls, comprehensive programs including mentorship, financial assistance, childcare support, and sexual and reproductive health services may be needed.

Adolescent boys will also need support and guidance to invest in their own education and to value the education of their female peers as a way to build stronger families and communities. Furthermore, demand-side interventions such as bursaries, cash transfers, and re-entry policies can have limited impact if the quality of education provided remains poor.


This Programmatic Analysis is hopefully the beginning of a long dialogue on adolescent girls for Malawi and Zambia. Both countries have some of the fastest-growing populations in the world and the cost of inaction is high. In Zambia, the analysis’ main conclusions helped inform the finalization of a new multi-sector policy for Zambia on ending child marriage. It also provided technical inputs to a component of the $65 million SP GEWEL project.

In Malawi, further discussions will be needed to best understand how to operationalize key findings through Bank-supported activities or other relevant channels. I believe this work was unique in our truly multi-sectorial approach as well as the diversity of voices engaged in the policy dialogue.

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In the May 2015 Zambia workshop, relevant ministerial officials engaged in dialogue alongside representatives from civil society, donors, traditional chiefs, and a very brave and articulate adolescent girl.

Catherine, who lives in Lusaka, shared her story with the workshop audience about becoming a teenage mother and dropping out of school to care for her son and young brother: “Looking back, I wished I had access to reproductive health information. It would have guided my actions as a teenager and given me support as I care for my baby so I could return to school.”

Just like Martha in Malawi, Catherine is a role model for girls in Zambia advocating for more comprehensive services to help adolescents stay on track and in school.

Originally published on The World Bank Blogs