Eighteen-year-old Nelia lives in a chaotic household in Makokota Village, in the northern lakeshore district of Nkhatabay, Malawi. The youngest of five siblings, she is the only one still pursuing an education — her brothers and sisters all dropped out before they reached high school.
Some of her older siblings got married when they were still teenagers, and left their children in the care of their poverty-stricken mother. One of the children has special needs, which takes up a significant chunk of the mother’s time in caretaking.
Girls who can't afford school fees often drop out and end up married with children before they're out of their teens
“The situation is worsened by the fact that we lost our father four years ago," says Nelia. "We live on our uncle’s land and he constantly reminds my mum that this is not our place and we should be ready for eviction any time.”
Their household now has over 20 members, a common occurence in Malawi, where high school is not free and more than half the population lives on less than $2 a day, making it difficult for children from poor families to finish school.
Nelia, who is in her final year at Mpamba Community Day Secondary School, says she has resisted the temptation to make the mistakes that her siblings did, which pushed her family deeper into poverty. She has her sight set on the future and wants to become an IT expert.
With support from the Kids In Need of Desks (K.I.N.D.) Fund, which enables girls to continue their education and reach their full potential, Nelia received a scholarship and is closer to making her dreams a reality. Started in 2010 by MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell and UNICEF, the K.I.N.D. Fund has provided scholarships for 10,664 girls in Malawi to date; 3,801 will receive their high school diplomas at the end of the current academic year. The K.I.N.D. project has also delivered desks benefitting more than 938,000 students in 28 of Malawi's 34 education districts.
“It is not all the time that such an opportunity avails itself. I know I am the one who will break my family’s poverty cycle, thanks to this scholarship which came my way when I was going to start Form Two,” she says.
I know I am the one who will break my family's poverty cycle, thanks to this scholarship. — Nelia, 18
Nelia used to help her mother in her potato garden, the proceeds of which would go towards paying school fees in installments. But the funds were limited and she would end up missing much of the school year due to unpaid fees. She was on the verge of dropping out when the school administration selected her as a scholarship recipient. In addition to tuition coverage, Nelia also receives a uniform, hygiene supplies, books and stationery.
Schools were closed in Malawi for six months to prevent the spread of COVID-19
The government’s decision to shut down schools due to COVID-19 had a heavy impact for students like Nelia, who found it difficult to study at home, where there is no electricity and no other light sources for doing schoolwork after dark. After five months, schools in Malawi reopened. She is happy and relieved now that she can go back to school.
According to her head teacher, Catherine Chirwa, the K.I.N.D. Fund makes a significant contribution to keeping girls in school. In her 35 years of teaching, Chirwa says she has seen hundreds of girls drop because they couldn't afford to pay school fees.
“The emergence of COVID-19 was a big blow to education in general, but particularly of major concern to learners like Nelia because the environment they live in discourages them to pursue school and puts pressure on them to get married,” says Chirwa, who pointed out that it was more frustrating because schools were closed when her students were in the middle of mock examinations.
Six months of closure did not deter Nelia’s resolve to fulfill her dreams. Several of her schoolmates were not so fortunate; they got married during the COVID-19 school shutdown, abruptly ending their education.
The school has put in place measures that will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as well as prepare the Form 4 students for their final exams. They are also monitored to ensure that they are wearing masks properly, washing their hands with soap frequently and adhering to physical distancing while on the school premises.
I have been studying hard, not only to succeed, but to make everyone who has supported me proud.
“I am prepared for the national examinations and have been studying hard, not only to succeed, but to make everyone who has supported me proud,” Nelia say. “I am on a mission to attain a quality education that will improve my standard of living.“
To learn more about how the Kids In Need of Desks project is helping children and families in Malawi, read Lawrence O'Donnell's interview with UNICEF Malawi Representative Rudolf Schwenk.
Top photo: Nelia, 18, is on track to receive her high school diploma at Mpamba Community Day Secondary School in Nkhatabay District, Malawi, with help from a scholarship provided by the Kids in Need of Desks (K.I.N.D.) Fund, a partnership between MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell and UNICEF. © UNICEF/UNI383579/