We’re in Phalombe District, a rural area in the Southern Region of Malawi. Bright sunshine bathes the lush green landscape dotted with mountains, and streams through the windows of the office of Mr. Chilumpha, Headteacher at one of our partner schools – Migowi Primary School, as the children make their way to lessons.

Almost every inch of every wall in Mr. Chilumpha’s office is covered in colourful, meticulously neat charts – showing every detail of his school and its student body of over 3,000 learners. Upper primary schools in Malawi typically accommodate learners aged 9 – 16.

In pride of place on Mr. Chilumpha’s desk sits a gold trophy. He explains with a broad smile that the trophy has recently been awarded to Migowi Primary School by the Theatre for a Change Right To Learn Project team – in recognition of the school’s outstanding participation.

Our small, dedicated team – Yamikani, Gloria and Andrew (pictured below on the left, with Agent of Change Mr. M’ndala, and our Acting Malawi Country Director Fiona) have been based in Phalombe District implementing our Right To Learn Project since 2017 – working in partnership with Concern Worldwide and the Women’s Legal Resources Centre (WOLREC).

High rates of HIV and subsequent orphans and child-headed families, school related and community related gender-based violence, child labour and trafficking, child marriage – for girls as young as 12 years old, early pregnancy, low rates of literacy, and high levels of poverty and unemployment are all deep-rooted and prevalent issues in Phalombe District.

With our goal of the empowerment of the most vulnerable and marginalised women and girls firmly in mind, our Right To Learn Project aims to make schools into safer environments for children in Phalombe District – particularly girls, to reduce child marriage and early pregnancy and get girls affected by these issues back into school and learning, and to reduce gender-based violence and discrimination in schools and communities.

Champions like Mr. Chilumpha allow the Right To Learn Project to have a profound impact by wholeheartedly supporting and encouraging its activities in their school.

A group of 10 girls and 10 boys – selected for their promising leadership skills – have become the School Council at each of the 30 schools. Every school also has a Girls’ Club (some of whom are also members of the School Council) – made up of 40 girls, who are both in school and returning from being out of school. A Literacy Club is run for Girls’ Club members to give additional support with their literacy skills.

We provide reusable sanitary pads, in partnership with Afripads, to ensure that our participants can continue attending school throughout the month – as often they cannot afford to buy sanitary protection. We also assist participants with school fees, stationery and school uniform costs – to remove any barriers to school attendance.

We have trained a total of 61 adults – teachers and local mothers’ group members – in 30 Phalombe primary schools to become Agents of Change – the key champions for Right To Learn in their schools. Our training has given them the confidence and skills to implement regular behaviour change workshops for the School Council and Girls’ Club – using our unique combination of drama and participatory learning to empower their learners.

These workshops cover gender-based violence topics – such as gender expectations, cultural practices and school safety; child abuse and rights topics – such as child marriage, recognising the signs and consequences of child abuse, and positive discipline in school; and sexual and reproductive health and rights topics – such as contraception, saying no to sexual pressure, and HIV prevention.

Today at Migowi Primary School, the School Council is exploring the issues of child marriage and related early pregnancy, led by their Agents of Change – teachers Mrs. Kamwendo and Mr. Mankhampa. Boys play girls and vice versa without inhibition during their role plays, and the learners openly discuss formerly “taboo” issues such as sex, childbirth and menstruation. The boys pledge to support girls throughout their school with attending classes without shame during menstruation. Below, the group use role play to explore two situations around early pregnancy, and the death of a young girl due to early childbirth.

 

Agents of Change must be one female teacher (or mothers’ group member if there are no female teachers) and one male teacher for each school, to ensure a gender balance. Their workshop participants have become ambassadors for sexual and reproductive health and rights – spreading awareness in their schools on a regular basis, including giving Interactive Theatre performances to their school body and community.

At Monjo Primary School nearby, we meet the Agents of Change – a mothers’ group member, Mrs. Sadson, and a male teacher, Mr. Kamalizeni – with some of their Girls’ Club participants. All of these girls were out of school, and are now transitioning back into education. One participant was forced to drop out of school seven years ago to marry early, and has since had two children. Our Right To Learn Project has enabled her to return to learning. Agents of Change often visit the families of out of school girls to advocate for their return.

Girls’ Club has improved my confidence. I now look at the person I’m talking to without fear” – Girls’ Club Participant

Every school has a Community Listening Club too. This is made up of Agents of Change, learners and their parents or guardians – who together tune into our weekly Interactive Radio Drama broadcast across Malawi – Tisinthe! – which encourages listeners to take part in exploring issues around sexual and reproductive health. After the broadcast ends, the group will act out the critical moment of the drama together, exploring different solutions by using our unique “touch-tag” technique – participants enter the performance space and take on the character whose situation they want to change.

Concern Worldwide and the Women’s Legal Resource Centre (WOLREC) work directly with parents, key community members and duty bearers, who have formed groups in 62 villages across Phalombe District, as well as with the Social Affairs Office and the Police, to actively find solutions to the issues facing children in their communities, and to bring perpetrators of gender-based violence to justice. Village Savings and Loan groups have also been set up to address poverty and unemployment.

Our Agents of Change work hand in hand with these community members and authorities to report cases relating to children in their schools to the authorities, which they must also report to their Headteacher to log in their child protection record.

Our aim is that, with this in-depth training, Agents of Change and communities are empowered to report cases to the authorities on an ongoing basis, and to work together to create safe environments conducive to safe, happy and healthy childhoods, which include access to education. Mrs. Sadson shares that the training has given her much more confidence to report child protection cases, including recently intervening to stop a girl in her community from being married early. She is also happy to hear from other parents that her participants are much more confident in their home lives, and are working hard in their lessons at school.

Our final school to visit today is Chingazi Primary School, where the School Council is exploring positive discipline in their workshop. Join the children and their Agents of Change as they sing and dance to warm up for their activities:

As the day draws to a close, we reflect on the commitment and passion of our partner schools’ Agents of Change and Headteachers, our project team, and our organisational partners. Together, we will continue championing the invaluable and life-changing Right To Learn for Phalombe’s children, and look forward to sharing more stories featuring our hard-working and inspirational participants.

A £5 gift could help us to provide a Right To Learn workshop essentials kit to one of the 30 schools we support – containing snacks and drinks for the learners to make sure they have the energy to take part fully, along with a focus ball, colourful marker pens and paper for participatory activities.

A £10 gift could help us to support an out of school girl transitioning back into education and taking part in a Right To Learn Girls’ Club to cover costs such as school uniform, stationery and school fees.

You can become a Right To Learn champion too! Join our Theatre for a Change supporter family – please click here to give a gift to the Right To Learn Project today.