Apart from engaging with learners through the door to door approach, the mother groups are also teaching the girls sewing sanitary pads and face masks.

(One of the mother group members sewing face masks which they distribute to learners and sell some for their economic gains)

The debate on whether to open schools that were closed some five months ago due to Covid-19 continues with parents, learners, and teachers looking for the best means of making schools safe from Covid-19.

President Lazarus Chakwera has hinted during his weekly radio update that schools could open early September having fulfilled all guidelines set.

The hint, however, has reignited the debate on whether to open schools or not with people calling for a comprehensive risk assessment to avoid providing a chance for further spread of the virus.

While the debate continues on different platforms some mothers are not just participating in the debate but also contributing towards making the schools safe by engaging both learners and parents on Covid-19 preventative measures.

Through the door to door engagement with learners and parents, mother groups are supporting learners especially girls to remain in school by listening to the challenges the girls are facing and providing necessary support so that they overcome the challenges.

Jacqueline Kambuzi, a standard 8 pupil at Mkanga Primary School in Salima, is one of the learners who has been interacting with mother group members during the pandemic helping her to remain focused on school and overcoming challenges girls are facing during the pandemic.

Jacqueline says the mother groups have been going door to the door having a dialogue with learners on how to prevent themselves from Covid19 and continue having an interest in school.

"When mother group members visited me, we discussed issues on how I can protect myself from Covid-19, they also opened their doors that if I have any challenges relating to my education I have to contact them and they assured me that I have to continue studying because schools will open and I will be able to write examinations," said Jacqueline.

Jacqueline further said the mother group has also reached out to parents and traditional leaders which has made it easier for authorities in her area to provide a conducive environment for learners especially girls.

She says the by-laws being reinforced by chiefs and different committees in the area are protecting girls from early marriages, pregnancies and abuse as they wait for the opening of schools.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has mostly affected us, girls, because we are being put under pressure to just get married because some people think it will take years before schools open again. Such pressure though is being handled by the collaborative efforts of mother groups, teachers, and chiefs in our area because they are frequently checking on us in our homes and guide us on any arising issues which may hamper our education", added Jacqueline.

Commenting on the initiative, chair for Mkanga mother group, Zione Webu said when Covid-19 hit they were worried that their efforts of keeping girls in school will go in vain but through collaboration with other stakeholders they are winning the battle.

Webu says so far no girl at Mkanga school is pregnant or got married during the pandemic which indicates that their door to door engagement with learners, parents, and leaders is bearing fruits.

"We were worried about losing girls to marriages considering the lengthy holiday but so far we haven't recorded any pregnancy among the girls and we keep on monitoring them in their homes. As mother group members we cherish the guidance which was provided by Story Workshop soon after the pandemic hit which has helped us to remain strong, coordinate with fellow committee members and chiefs which is making it easier to help girls during the pandemic,” said Webu.

On his part, headteacher for Mkanga Primary School, Fredrick Msamba said through the door to door engagement with learners and parents they are able to rescue girls from possible abuses within the community.

Msamba says it interesting that through the approach learners are opening up on issues hampering their education while home and consequently receiving guidance and support which is helping them to remain in the right perspective on education.

"Learners are complaining of lack of support from their parents, some are not being given the necessary equipment to aide their studies such as torches, some are being forced to marry especially girls and some are being taken as breadwinners being sent to sell junky foods in the markets. So when we meet them we reason together with their parents and in some situations, even engaging chiefs which has so far helped more learners remain in the course," said Msamba.

Apart from engaging with learners through the door to door approach, the mother groups are also teaching the girls sewing sanitary pads and face masks.

According to Webu, the mother group chair, they are supporting the girls with sewing skills so that they are able to utilize their skills in sourcing some needs when they are at home.

"We are also teaching the girls sewing face masks and sanitary pads. We are doing it in phases, we have 10 girls per session, making sure that they wear face masks and maintaining social distance so that during this pandemic they should not just be staying but also learning some skills which may help them in future," said Webu.

The initiative of sewing face masks at the school, according to the headteacher of Mkanga school, is a good step towards making schools safe from Covid-19.

(Mother group chair for Mkanga School)

Msamba says while the government and stakeholders are pondering on possible means of opening schools, the steps being taken by these mothers are essential in making the school one of those to be considered when schools open.

"The opening of schools requires us to meet some standards relating to Covid-19 preventative measures, so the fact that we have mothers who are sewing face masks and reaching out to learners on Covid-19 preventative measures through the door to door it is giving us hope that it is possible to make schools safe", said the headteacher.

Group Village Headman Ruben of TA Kambwiri in Salima, says the coordination among different stakeholders is making a reinforcement of by-laws easier hence keeping learners especially girls in school despite the pandemic.

GVH Ruben says the dialogue sessions which they had with Story Workshop and government officials from the education department energized their efforts in promoting girls’ education.

"Soon after attending the dialogue with Story Workshop, we developed a work plan with clear approaches to follow in engaging with the communities on girls’ education. Due to Covid-19 we opted for the door to door which the committees are doing. On my part as a leader I have directed that no child should be found in video shows, in markets selling things during late hours and that no parent should force girls to marry, otherwise they are consequences which they face once they are found on the wrong side of the by-law," said GVH Ruben.

Commenting on the interventions, School Health and Nutrition Coordinator for Salima Moffat Makuluni appreciated the efforts school and community-based structures have undertaken during the pandemic saying they are supporting learners especially girls to remain in school.

Makuluni said it is good that the committees are vigilant in their work making it possible to help a good number of learners remain in school during the pandemic.

"It is great to note that mother groups, school committees, and Parent-Teacher Associations are active in their work which is minimizing the havoc which the pandemic could have caused to learners especially girls. The fact that they are reaching out to learners and their parents and resolve arising matters gives hope that when schools open, most of the learners will return,” said Makuluni.

Makuluni further said despite the fact that some girls are pregnant and some have gone into marriages it is also important to highlight the efforts taking place on the ground protecting girls during the pandemic.

(Standard 8 Jacqueline, one of the beneficiaries of the door to door engagement)

"Yes we are losing some girls due to pregnancies and marriages but we should also appreciate the efforts being taken by mother groups who are relentlessly engaging with learners and parents protecting them from all sorts of issues within their communities so that they remain in school. Even for those pregnant, the mother groups are continually engaging with them so that they return to school after giving birth", added Makuluni.

In his remarks, Given Chichitike, Project Coordinator for Story Workshop said equipping school and community-based structures with necessary approaches and skills to use during the pandemic in engaging with learners is crucial in helping the learners especially girls remain in school.

Chichitike said Story Workshop together with other partners in the United Nations Joint Program on Girls Education (UNJPGEII) is helping the committees to remain active and supportive in engaging with parents, girls and leaders so that girls remain in school.

"We understand we have Covid-19 amidst us but we hope despite the pandemic there are means of engaging with learners to remain in school. So, we conducted dialogues with school and community-based structures on the need to use door to door approach in encouraging learners, especially girls remain in school and attend to classes which are being aired on radio. So far, with support from Education, Information, Health, and Youth departments, we have managed to reach out to all 54 UNJPGEII schools in Salima, encouraging mother groups and school committees to continue rescuing girls from early marriages and protecting them from abuses," said Chichitike.

Chichitike further said it is interesting that the media is only reporting on the number of girls who have gone into marriages or they are pregnant instead of also highlighting figures of those rescued from such by the mother groups.

"Our follow up dialogues to the committees have shown that they are rescuing a good number of girls from early marriages which we also feel that they have to be reported to recognize the work school and community-based structures are doing to keep girls in school despite the pandemic. The committees are also playing a crucial role in protecting girls from abuse and all sorts of violence which the girls are exposed to during the pandemic", added Chichitike.

Story Workshop is supporting the implementation of UNJPGEII interventions with communication for development interventions in the districts of Dedza, Mangochi, and Salima where 3 UN agencies, namely UNICEF, WFP and UNFPA are working together in collaboration with government departments to reduce poverty through improved quality education for adolescent girls.