Maryam from Malawi


Maryam’s presence filled the room before she even opened her mouth. When she did, all eyes were on her, looking on in anticipation.

Throughout my #Faces2Hearts trip I interviewed dozens of fascinating people. I’m grateful for each conversation I had and know this experience will continue to shape who I am for years to come.

But naturally some memories rise to my mind’s surface more often than others. One person I met in particular inspired me more than she may ever know. Her name is Maryam, a 15-year-old secondary school student.

Not who you expected? Me neither. But despite her young age Maryam commanded respect. She was the lead character in a school play about a young girl who had lost her father. Her mother, with no income of her own, remarried but her step father turned out to be a manipulative abuser.

After realising her school fees had not been paid, the girl confronted her step dad and asked for the money. After a short discussion it became apparent that the man would only pay for her education if she slept with him. In the end she ran away and confided in her friends, who alerted the authorities and brought the man to justice.

It was a harrowing tale of how opportunistic adults take advantage of young girls’ hopelessness. “It really happens and it happens a lot,” Maryam would later tell me. “So the girls club is helping us to abolish those things and it’s really working.”

The club she’s talking about is part of the ISEM programme, which stands for Improving Secondary Education in Malawi. The initiative is funded by the European Union (EU) to the tune of €36 million. The budget will extend for four years, between 2016 and 2020.

Primary education is free in Malawi and most children get to attend, although among the poorest families even small expenses like school uniforms can prove impossible. But when it comes to secondary education the picture is very different. Only about 35% of pupils continue to this second stage. Among those 35% few come from rural areas and even fewer are girls.

The programme’s aim is trifold. The are trying to improve equitable access to education, making sure girls are given just as many opportunities as boys. They also want to increase the relevance and quality of the school curriculum and, finally, improve management of the educational sector.

Part of the initiative is improving school infrastructure, from building additional classrooms and toilets to expanding their capacity. The secondary school I visited just outside of the Malawian capital of Lilongwe was undergoing such expansion. The workers were still hard at work, painting walls in the midday sun.

I was curious to learn how the project would impact the pupils once it was finished, so I sat down with Maryam to ask her a few questions. Here is what she had to say…

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What is your favourite subject? What do you want to do when you grow up? 

My favourite subject here is English and Chemistry. When I grow up I want to be a lawyer and on the other hand I also want to do engineering. It’s like two options – if one fails it’s always good to have a backup plan. Lawyer is my plan A and engineer is my plan B.

How will the school extension affect your education? 

Now we are a hundred kids per class. So it will be fifty fifty. When there are a lot of kids in the same class, some will mind and some won’t. So the ones who mind will lose track when the others are making noise. So when they are divided there will be time for everyone to take something from the teaching. It’s also hard for the teachers when everyone is making noise. So it will be perfect for the teachers as well as us.

What is the girls club?

The girls club has the aim of making girls’ education go forward. When you educate a girl you educate the whole nation, you know? The girl minds a lot of things and when she is educated in the club, it makes a difference. We also work to abolish gender based violence.

We are twenty girls and ten boys, because some of the topics relate to boys as well. We need them for peer support. So if a girl is being harassed some hero can just come in and help us.

This club is helping us in terms of fees, basic needs and this stuff. So it’s also our responsibility to work on our school. Because if they’re helping us and we’re not working on our school, their work is nothing. We should also find a way to work so we can buy some books or resources that can help us. God helps someone who helps themselves. If you are getting good grades in class the club will be happy to help us more.

How was girls’ education in Malawi changed over the years? How different is it for you compared to your mum or grandma? 

Years ago things were not working good. If the girl was old enough she was told to drop out of school and get married. There are a lot of misconceptions like the girl’s place is in the kitchen. Which is a total lie and you know that. A girl can accomplish a lot of stuff in the future. A woman can take care of her family. Everyone has equal rights and no one is above the law. Everyone is equal.

Right now I hope that every girl at least should finish her education. The other girls who are getting pregnant in this administration can still come back to school after giving birth. If the guy is from the same school he should also take care of the baby. It’s not fair to leave the guy at school and the girl to be at home.

A girl understands other people’s feelings, a guy only cares about himself. When a girl sees something bad she feels pain. I feel pain when I see other girls just staying at home with no school fees. When I grow up I want to start my own club that will help other girls finish their education.

If you have a daughter one day, what would you want to tell her? 

I would want to relate to my daughter that she should not be afraid. Fear makes girls keep their secrets. The girls have to be open-minded and secret free. If you tell your friends your problems, your problems are half solved. So girls don’t have to fear anything. Fear is not allowed.

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Ladies, you’ve heard Maryam. Fear is not allowed. So do not go gentle into the night. Her teachers and classmates are certainly not, equipped with textbooks and a winning attitude. Here are a few of them…

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