improving girls’ access to secondary education

– Malawi

What are the challenges?

With fewer than 100 secondary schools in the 1990s, the Malawian government responded to significant demand for secondary education in 1998 by converting hundreds of skeletal Distance Learning Centers into a new type of secondary school – the "Community Day Secondary School" (CDSS). However, Community Day Secondary Schools still face significant challenges – from poorly trained teachers, to limited teaching and learning materials, to an outdated curriculum that is ill-suited to meet the needs of the economy or of the next generation of graduates. This has led to almost universally poor perceptions of the schools and by extension poor perceptions of the value of secondary education.


 More systemically, girls in Malawi face a number of obstacles when it comes to accessing and succeeding in school. If families can afford to send their children to secondary school, boys will usually be given preference over girls. In addition, they often are unable to see the value of a secondary education, as the national curriculum does not include applicable skills to improve livelihoods in rural Malawi. And with the only option for many being a poorly resourced Community Day Secondary School, parents often choose marriage or work for their daughters. In Malawi, less than 15% of women have any years of secondary school education, with 42% of girls married before the age of 18 – the twelfth highest rate of child marriage in the world. Without a full secondary education, girls are vulnerable to the effects of child marriage and extreme poverty – forced sex, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, domestic abuse, and physically demanding agricultural work.

How are our grantee-partners helping?

Informed by the students, families, and teachers they seek to serve, our grantee-partners have developed four separate ideas for reforming aspects of the Community Day Secondary School system, with a specific focus on helping adolescent girls. Our grantee-partners believe that it is essential to respond to the challenge of girls’ education with a multifaceted approach that looks at the community and family circumstances that prevent girls from reaching their full potential. These organizations have developed solutions ranging from entrepreneurship training in schools, to a dedicated social fund to support young girls, to a multi-faceted cultural program to shift community attitudes towards girls’ secondary schooling, to dedicated livelihood development for families supporting young women through secondary school.

How is Firelight helping?

Driven by our belief in solutions that are community-driven and community-supported, Firelight helped our grantee-partners engage in an extensive period of human-centered design training and application. This process encouraged our grantee-partners to engage their communities in identifying the root causes of low transition, persistence, and pass rate for girls in secondary school.

As a methodology, human-centered design unleashes creativity and innovation by leveling the playing field among stakeholders so that all voices are heard. This kind of process also emphasizes deep empathy with stakeholders to truly understand the problem and to create workable solutions. As a result, our grantee-partners came up with four different but deeply community driven ideas to change the way communities see school, support school, and understand how students thrive. Firelight is also helping to document the efficacy of both human-centered design in a community context and of our grantees’ models so that all can be replicated and scaled by communities themselves or by the government.

Along with our training in human-centered design, Firelight built the capacity of our grantee-partners in program implementation and iteration, learning and evaluation, and social accountability, which allows them to work closely with government actors to ultimately hold them accountable for quality educational service delivery. For example, in partnership with external technical experts, we produced a consolidated ‘how-to’ guide with specifics on how to develop evaluation tools, collect and manage data, and use findings to advocacy for policy or budget changes at the local government level.

Firelight also played a substantial role in convening stakeholders – from both local civil society organizations and government – for a national conversation about the Community Day Secondary School system and empowered our grantee-partners to keep that conversation going at a district and local level. 

What has the impact been?


Our grantee-partners have worked with over 6,000 students and over 7,000 community members and parents, teachers, local leaders, and government officials on improving transition, persistence, and exam pass rates for the most vulnerable girls in Malawi’s Community Day Secondary Schools.

Our partners have activated local stakeholders, such as community leaders, to start their own initiatives aimed at improving their local secondary schools and to enable more parents to send their girls to secondary school. We have already begun to see significant results:

  • Reduced school dropout rates

  • Increased enrollment in second school

  • Increased self-confidence of girls in the classroom

  • Increased interest of teachers in their students’ education

  • Increased community support of girls’ education, and

  • Increased ability of parents to contribute to and participate in their girls’ education, and

  • Improvements in boys’ attitudes and cooperation with girls, enabling girls to participate more freely in class activities.

Our grantee-partners have also been able to collaborate effectively with different community and government stakeholders, who have become increasingly involved in supporting girls’ education. As a result, government representatives have increased the number of qualified teachers, provided financial support, and approved the construction of a girls’ hostel in several of the schools supported by our grantee-partners.  

How are we planning for the future?

With the capacity building they have received in human-centered design, we know that these four Malawian organizations will continue to design, prototype, and adapt effective solutions over time and shift the educational and community systems that limit girls’ access to and success in secondary school. Our grantee-partners continue to evolve and adapt their programs with the idea that they could one day be scaled across other communities or by the government itself. 

To scale and sustain these solutions, we plan to document and share their effective community-driven models so that they can be affordably and sustainably replicated, contributing to local, national and regional efforts to increase education success rates.

With more girls transitioning to CDSSs and persisting and passing once in school, we believe that community mindsets around the value of girls’ education will shift even further, inspiring more and more families to support their girls to access secondary education.

Communities in action


Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) is a grassroots movement of girls and young women that works to support and improve the wellbeing of vulnerable and marginalized young girls in Malawi.  GENET makes its presence felt in the schools which which it currently works by helping school communities establish social funds – collective savings groups fueled by local businesses – that can support girls’ education over the long-term without outside help. They also seek to capitalize on their success in national advocacy to strengthen their national platform and impact Malawian education policy. The story of Nduuzani Davis is a perfect example of how a little help and counseling can change the life of a girl.

Nduuzani Davis is in Form 1 at Dziwe Community Day Secondary School and is the third born of four children. Nduuzani lives with her mother who is a smallholder farmer and has never known her father because her parents are separated. “I like listening to the MBC Radio 1 where female radio announcers are my role models.  I would like to be a radio announcer too when I finish school,” she said. Nduuzani is inspired by leaders like Joyce Banda and her neighbor studying journalism at university. “Watching her achieve great things keeps me motivated and focused on my dreams.”

Nduuzani faces many barriers on her way to achieving her dreams. Nduuzani and her brother live 13 kilometers away from their schools. She leaves home at 5 am on an empty stomach to begin the long journey to school, often arriving after 8 am. Arriving at school tired and hungry impedes her concentration. Her brother works menial jobs to make money to pay his own school fees, which his mother cannot afford. But Nduuzani is unable to do so.  GENET stepped in to help Nduuzani, giving her a bursary to continue her education as well as monthly counseling support. Soon, the bursary payments for girls like Nduuzani will not come from GENET itself, but from the community’s own social funds to support the education of the most vulnerable girls in the community.

Nduuzani said:

“The GENET bursary has been an enormous relief. It has meant so much to my family and future. Since they started paying my school fees, my life has been easier and I am able to work wholeheartedly towards my future. Since GENET started giving me education support material and monthly counselling by mentors and GENET staff, my performance has improved. In my first term I failed my exams but in my second term my scores put me in 28th position in a class of 40 girls.

However, when I look in the distance, sometimes I feel pressured to get married like my sister. She didn’t go on to high school after her standard 8 exams because we did not have the money for school fees. She got married because it seemed like a shortcut to a better life. Her husband courted her by buying her soap, body lotion and food. After a few months my sister started complaining that her husband beats her up and at times they go to bed on empty stomachs. I feel very sorry for my sister and all she is going through.  I don’t want to go through a similar experience and believe that enduring the long journey to school and the hard work to perform well is the best option.”

Firelight and GENET are inspired by the courage and determination of girls like Nduuzani and are committed to turning her dreams into a reality.