Malawi: meet Perfect, a refugee paving the way for girls to have access to university

19 September 2019

Perfect and three other young women from Dzaleka refugee camp are now studying at the Catholic University of Malawi. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
Perfect and three other young women from Dzaleka refugee camp are now studying at the Catholic University of Malawi. (Jesuit Refugee Service)

Perfect and her sister were twelve and fourteen when both their parents were killed during the civil war in Burundi. A local pastor took them to the Malawi border and left them in the hands of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). In 2012 the girls were transferred to Dzaleka refugee camp.

Perfect and her sister were enrolled in JRS schools where they excelled. They both completed secondary school, but, due to a lack of opportunities for further education, Perfect’s sister decided to get married.

In 2017, Perfect participated in a focus group with JRS and the Fidel Götz Foundation about the challenges faced by girls in Dzaleka. She described how girls missed school because they had to take care of siblings, and how the endemic sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the camp affected girls’ ability to continue in education. She saw friends forced to marry, so their families would have fewer mouths to feed. Perfect wanted something different for girls like herself & her sister.

Addressing the barrier to girls’ education

Dzaleka was built to house 4,000 people, but it currently houses 40,000 asylum seekers and refugees. With an average of 500 new arrivals each month, Dzaleka is overcrowded and educational services cannot keep up with the growth in population.

There is one formal primary school in the camp, and a secondary school. For every 87 students there is only one teacher.  At lower primary level there are usually as many girls enrolled as there are boys, but beyond the sixth grade girls begin to drop out in far greater numbers compared to boys.  The reasons for this include economic pressures, safety concerns, a lack of sanitation facilities, early marriage and pregnancy, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and a lack of future educational opportunities.

With the Naweza Project, created in partnership with the Götz Foundation, JRS has begun to address these challenges by empowering refugee girls and increasing their access to quality education and economic opportunities. Based on input from girls in the camp such as Perfect, Naweza provides sanitary packs, WASH facilities, and protective infrastructure to help make school attendance regular and safe. Naweza organises community engagement activities to raise awareness about the importance of girls’ education and the potential it brings for long-term economic and social benefits. Naweza Girls’ Clubs provide life-skills training and empowerment to combat gender stereotypes that lead to early marriage and SGBV.

Perfect participated in the project design. She facilitated the first Girls’ Clubs, and she is now a Naweza Scholar.

Paving the way for access to university

Through that initial focus group with Perfect and her peers, JRS and the Götz  Foundation learnt that the biggest challenge to having access to higher education in Malawi were the prohibitive tuition costs. Perfect and her peers were asked: “Would you be interested to continue your education in Malawi if the tuition were covered through a scholarship?” The answer was a resounding, “Yes!”

Initial scholarship funds were made available through Naweza in 2018, and Perfect is now studying social work at the Catholic University of Malawi.

Of the 3000 students who applied to the university during the last admissions period, only 800 were accepted. Perfect and three other young women from Dzaleka were among those granted admission.

“I will not allow the challenges I have met in life to stop me. I will use them as stepping stones to a brighter future. I believe other girls in camp will cross with me into this future,” Perfect says.

I will not allow the challenges I have met in life to stop me. I will use them as stepping stones to a brighter future
Perfect, Dzaleka refugee camp

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