CAMFED Association member and activist, Malawi

I’m Esmie from Mangochi District in Malawi, and I am a champion of girls’ education!

My education journey has not been easy. I am the fourth born in a family of six children. I passed the primary leaving certificate in 2008 and was selected to a community day school*. I completed the first two years of secondary school with joy because my father was able to support me. But in 2011, when I was part way through Form 3, my father passed away and my struggles began.

My mother tried her best and always encouraged me in school, but with six children to support she did not have the resources to pay my school fees or for essentials like books and pens. I had no more funds and nobody to support me. At that time, CAMFED had not reached my local school, so I was sent back home for not paying fees.

At home I knew I needed to help the family, so I started working fetching water for a house construction and managed to save MK2000 (USD $1.96). Although this wasn’t enough to pay the full term’s fees totalling MK3500 (about USD $3.40), the headmaster accepted what I had and I joined my friends back in school.

Through education, I can support my family. Through education, I can support my community. Through education, I can change my country, the whole country.

Life for me was very tough. The school was 3 ½ hours from my home so I had to stay in a boarding house nearby. I lacked basic necessities like food and soap. Sometimes sympathetic people in the community helped me with food, like Nshima (our staple diet – a porridge made from ground maize), but most of the time I struggled alone.

When I was in Form 4, the last year of secondary school, my situation worsened. One of my friends convinced me to find a boyfriend so that he could support me. I was so desperate that I accepted advances from a man who offered to pay my school fees and promised me a better future. A few months later I was pregnant and I dropped out of school.

After I delivered, I wanted to go back to school but there was no one to support me. When my daughter was 2 years old, the pressure to get married became intense. I decided it was better to leave home rather than get married, so I went to stay with a cousin in Mangochi town. There I found a job at a retail shop selling shoes and clothing, earning MK5,000 (USD $4.90) per month. I opened a bank account and saved as hard as I could, with the intention of saving money for my school fees.

In 2013, after 8 months of saving I had enough for fees and I went back home and enrolled back in the community day secondary school. Even though my mother was old and frail she offered to stay home and look after my daughter while I was at school. My education had really suffered from missing so many lessons, so I had to repeat a year and enrol back in Form 3. Back in school, I told a teacher about the challenges I was facing at home, and that’s when a CAMFED-trained Teacher Mentor put me forward for a bursary. When I found out I was going to receive support, it was the happiest day of my life! I will never forget that moment.

Esmie Mwenyekaka as a student, Malawi

Here I am in Form 4, happy to be wearing my new uniform and shoes.

I could see that my future was now open. I was relieved in my mind because I was not going to drop out.

With CAMFED supporting me, I had everything I needed to do well in school. Being supported by CAMFED took away my stress and anxiety which I used to have. I was now relaxed and concentrated on my school work. My self-esteem also improved because of the way I looked in the uniform and shoes. I felt secure, empowered and was no longer feeling pressured into accepting offers of money or marriage from older men. My academic performance improved such that I was chosen to be head girl!

I sat for my MSCE in 2014 and passed. It was the first time a girl at our school had passed national examinations

After graduating from secondary school in 2014, I joined the CAMFED Association of women leaders educated with CAMFED support. My CAMFED sisters have faced similar challenges in life, so we support each other and are able to change the negatives in life into positives.

With encouragement from my CAMFED sisters, I secured a place at Soche Technical College, Blantyre in 2015 to study Community Development. I chose to study community development because I want to give others the same opportunities I had, so that they too can be drivers of change. My hard work paid off and in 2017 I graduated with Merit in my Advanced Diploma.

In 2018 I lost two of my sisters to illness and was left with the responsibility of taking care of their 12 children, as well as my own daughter. To provide for us, I started my own small business baking and selling fritters. Of the MK 3,000 (about USD$3.00) I would invest in ingredients and fuel etc, I would make MK 1,000 (USD $ 1.00) profit to support the children, my daughter and my own mother. I have grown the business into a shop selling groceries to support us all.

The meaning of success to me is to be someone who will be able to support myself, to provide support to my family, and to be able to address problems that can occur in my life.

Through the CAMFED Association I began my voluntary activism to protect girls in my community from child marriage. Together we go into the community and mentor other girls so they too can finish secondary school. I share my story and encourage them to stick to their goals in life. I equip them with knowledge in how to avoid situations where they might be exploited. 

Esmie, CAMFED Association member, Malawi

Here I am in 2017 during a march for girls’ education, Zomba, Malawi.

I work with CAMFED as a Core Trainer of other young women in the CAMFED Association, supporting them as Learner Guides (helping girls to thrive in school) and Transition Guides (helping girls to transition into independence – to get a job, run businesses or apply for further education). I have also served as the elected District Chairperson of the CAMFED Association, representing Mangochi District at a national level.

Through what I have experienced, I can go into the community and advise my younger sisters, because I have been there before and now here I am.

I have personally supported five children outside of my family through school:  two boys, one of whom has now graduated from secondary school, and three girls.  I also reach out to parents and conduct study circles and literacy sessions for both children and parents.

Esmie, CAMFED Association member, Malawi

Here I am in Mangochi in 2015, conducting adult literacy classes.

In 2017, CAMFED supported me to travel to South Africa for CAMFED Association leadership training. I learnt how to work with different communities and how to build bonds between people. These skills have helped me in my advocacy work of ending child marriages

In my community I have built a strong bond with Senior Chief Sultan Chowe and now we work together to ensure girls can go to school and eradicate early marriage. He takes me wherever he is going to talk to girls about the challenges they are experiencing so I can give them advice. Chief Sultan Chowe is there for me each and every time I need support. I also work with Mother Support Groups from different communities to provide support to learners.

I was once a victim so I always put myself in the shoes of those at risk of early marriage. I am there for them.

I know that education is the only tool to overcome early marriage and gender based violence. My work with all the different stakeholders in my community has put me on the map as someone who will always advocate for girls’ rights. If I am alerted to a case of child marriage, I speak with the victim to understand her issues and how to support her. Then I take action so she can leave that marriage. I advise her to go back to school and work hard so she can have a better life.  I have already managed to end 16 child marriages in my community.

One girl in my community was pressured into marriage because she lacked the basics she needed for school, like pens and uniform, and hoped marriage was a way out of poverty. I encouraged her not to give up on her education and supported her with pens, books and uniform. She returned to school and we are still communicating today.

I am now very popular in my community – a girl who leads by example!

*Malawi suffers from an acute lack of secondary schools, meaning children —  especially in rural areas —  often have to travel long distances to school.

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