In early May, about two months after schools across Malawi closed because of COVID-19, Eliza Chikoti received a phone call from a former student: a bright 15-year-old girl who always got good grades.
"She called me and she said, 'Madame, I'm thinking of getting married,' " says Chikoti.
Chikoti, 24, works for Camfed, an international organization that supports girls' education. Part of her work is mentoring girls in the town of Mwanza — offering them support and guidance in their studies.
The student's message was discouraging. "I was like, why are you opting to go into marriage?" says Chikoti.
The girl explained that she was living with her grandparents in a house of six people. Since the pandemic began, the family has been struggling to put food on the table.
Chikoti says the girl told her, "If I can go into marriage, if they can find a husband who can marry me, maybe he can be able to support me."
With schools out of session, there's special concern about the female students in this small southern African country, one of the poorest in the world. Girls are desperate to help their families survive the tough times — and more likely than boys to turn to child marriage as a way to ease economic strains.
Role models like Chikoti are stepping in to help girls make tough decisions about their personal lives — and encouraging them to return to school when the shutdown ends.
"COVID has really derailed the education system — not in Malawi only. It's everywhere," says Grace Kafulatira Mulima. She works for Malawi's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and focuses on girls' secondary education.
Getting girls inside a classroom has been a top priority for Malawi over the past few decades. The country has made great strides, nearly doubling the number of girls in high school from 95,000 in 2006 to 185,934 in 2018. Current data show about the same number of girls and boys in high school.
The pandemic threatens to undo some of this hard-earned progress, says Mulima.
There's special concern about girls preparing for high school and college, says Foster Mkandawire, program manager for education for Plan International Malawi. The group provides girls with scholarships, uniforms, transport to and from school, and other services in 13 of the country's 29 school districts.
"They put in a lot of effort," Mkandawire says of female students. "They were almost ready to take exams, and suddenly we have to go out of schools because COVID has taken center stage. That is not good news for parents who have spent a lot of money [on items like books], for organizations sponsoring the girls."
With no plans to reopen schools in the immediate future, teachers are trying to educate students through radio programs and online classes. But many students don't have access to a radio, much less a smartphone or a laptop, says Chikoti.
There's another set of girls the educators worry about — those at risk of never returning to school again.
Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world — more than 40% of its girls marry before 18. And once they wed, many of these girls drop out of school.
In addition, a crisis like the pandemic is likely to lead even more girls to give up on school.
"From the information we are receiving from our field offices, about 50 girls are either married or some of them are pregnant [since the start of the pandemic]," says Mkandawire. "This is very unusual" compared with a similar period of months, he adds.
That's where mentors and counselors like Chikoti come in. Mulima at the Ministry of Education says that since 2015, these role models have been a crucial part of Malawi's strategy to keep girls in school. And even though schools are now closed, these mentors and counselors are checking in on the girls — encouraging them to remain committed to earning a high school diploma and helping them deal with personal and economic challenges.
"Keeping them in school is not enough. We want them to go to school and come out successfully," she says. "We have introduced the establishment of 'mother groups' — mothers in their communities who have gone to school who can help offer career guidance and help them make choices" about their education — among other mentorship programs.
Even before the pandemic, nonprofit organizations have helped provide mentors to girl students in Malawi. Plan International, for example, has 240 members in mother groups assisting 23,372 girls in both primary and secondary school. "The mother groups are conducting door-to-door sessions to ensure that girls are not tempted to get married while schools are in closure," says Mkandawire.
Camfed has a similar program. It has trained 1,099 government teachers at partner schools to be "teacher-mentors." These individuals act as role models to groups of 30 to 60 girls and work with parents and educators to meet the needs of girls, from sanitary pads to a bag of groceries to good advice. The group also has an association of 21,673 Camfed alumni, like Chikoti, who take a few girls under their wing too.
Two days after Chikoti received the phone call from the 15-year-old girl, she went to the girl's house. Chikoti wanted to change the student's mind. Was there some other way the girl could contribute to her family? Could she clean houses or find some other way to earn money?
Chikoti knew that if the girl were to marry, she'd likely get pregnant, have kids. Returning to school would just be too difficult.
Chikoti told the girl her own story. Like the 15-year-old, she too came from a big family and lived in poverty. And she contemplated early marriage too. But with Camfed's help, she stayed in school. At the time, students at secondary school had to pay school fees, which her family couldn't afford. So Camfed stepped in.
As a result, Chikoti became the first girl to graduate from her high school — then one of the first girls in her community to graduate from college. Now she's earning enough money to take care of herself, her family — and her parents.
The 15-year-old listened to Chikoti's story. She found work washing clothes for a little money or some flour. And she told Chikoti: "Yeah, I think I've reversed my decision. I will not get married. You will be my mentor."