Sixteen-year-old Atupele, above center, is thriving at Salima Secondary School in central Malawi. Soft-spoken but brimming with confidence, she regularly finishes among the top six students in her class and her grades continue to improve each term.
Primary school is free in Malawi, but families must pay tuition fees for secondary education — an impossible feat for many in a country where more than 50 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Only 16 percent of Malawi's secondary school-age children are in school.
Atupele is able to continue her education because she's one of 25 girls at Salima Secondary who receive scholarships from the Kids In Need of Desks (K.I.N.D.) Fund, a partnership between MSNBC and UNICEF founded in 2010 by MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell.
I was so relieved when I heard the news [about the K.I.N.D. scholarship], and I told myself I am going to work super hard. My favorite subject is history, and I want to be Minister of Gender or a lawyer so I can defend girls whose rights have been violated. — Atupele, 16
Atupele's family lives in Mzuzu, 162 miles from Salima. Her father is a soldier stationed in Salima. "When I was in primary school, he promised to pay my school fees when I went to secondary school," she says. But when she was old enough to enroll at Salima Secondary, he declined to contribute. "My mother had to go from being a stay-at-home mom to selling freezes [frozen fizzy drinks] to pay for my school fees. I've always looked forward to experiencing secondary school education, and not being able to pay my school fees scared me."
With her mom struggling to pay her fees, Atupele was delighted to learn she was eligible for a K.I.N.D. scholarship. "I was so relieved when I heard the news, and I told myself I am going to work super hard. My favorite subject is history, and I want to be the Minister of Gender or a lawyer so I can defend girls whose rights have been violated."
Atupele enjoys school so much that she hated staying at home when schools were closed due to COVID-19.
"My mom wouldn't let me leave the house because she was afraid I would catch the virus and give it to her. I started forgetting some of my schoolwork during that period because we had been at home for so long, and I must admit, I wasn't even studying that much."
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for some families to afford school tuition
She was ecstatic when her school reopened. She is set to sit for her Malawi Secondary Certificate of Education (MSCE) and confidently mentions that she's planning to pass with flying colors.
"Being a boarding school, a good number of these students cannot raise the required 64,000 MKW (US $78) boarding fees," explains Salous Mudalamba, the school's head teacher. "Many girls come from impoverished families and struggle to stay in school. I recall the story of a Form 1 girl I called into my office as I was going through fees balances, and the moment I started talking, she burst into tears, saying she wouldn't be able to raise enough money to pay the balance. Luckily, there was a vacant spot on the scholarship, and the school committee managed to assist her. She was thrilled."
Mudalamba says K.I.N.D. scholarships have had an enormous impact during the COVID-19 pandemic. "We have one girl in particular; her father has been sick for a long time, and her uncle, who is a businessman, was supporting her with school fees. However, due to COVID-19, the business has been slow; he could no longer support her. She was on the verge of dropping out and was put on scholarship to continue with her studies."
Since the host of MSNBC's "The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell" launched the K.I.N.D. Fund, more than 20,800 girls have received scholarships to help keep them in secondary school and reach their full potential. This year alone, 8,742 young women are on scholarship. In 2020, 3,421 girls graduated from secondary school with K.I.N.D. support. K.I.N.D. also supplies desks to hundreds of schools in Malawi, where around 50 percent of students do not have desks or chairs.
K.I.N.D. Fund scholarships have helped more than 20,800 girls attend secondary school
The scholarship package they receive includes school tuition and fees, uniforms, bags, books, notebooks, calculators and other essential education supplies.
It has made all the different for Atupele, and she's eager for other young women to have the same opportunity: "I would like to urge those behind the scholarship to continue helping girls who do not have the means to pay school fees."
To date, the K.I.N.D. Fund has raised more than $30 million to support education in Malawi. Your generous contribution can help more students like Atupele stay in school and break the cycle of poverty.
Top photo: Sixteen-year-old Atupele, center, and classmates attend Salima Secondary School in central Malawi. A Kids In Need of Desks (K.I.N.D.) scholarship covers her school fees, uniform and school supplies. © UNICEF Malawi/2021/Atlas Media