Grace, one of the star pupils at Mlomba primary school in southern Malawi (Copyright: WFP/Pamela Kuwali)
School meals do not only fill stomachs. They also attract students to school and help them to concentrate on their lessons. In the case of girls, they do even more. They can help prevent them from leaving school early and getting married before they are ready.
Despite strong competition from boys her age, Grace (15) has managed to maintain her status as number one student, not just in her class at Mlomba primary school but in the entire Boma education zone which includes 11 other schools. It certainly isn’t easy for her to find inspiration sitting on a cold floor with no desk and no books in the classroom she shares with 165 other students - and only one teacher. But her smile and soft voice belie a fierce determination.
In many ways, however, Grace is not so unique. Like most other students at her school, she comes to class each day on an empty stomach, and like many girls her age in rural Malawi, she has faced pressure from her family to leave school and get married. But Grace, unlike many others, is fortunate. WFP’s school meals have given her the opportunity to stay in school.
“Had there been no school meals”, she says, “I would have been married by now.”
In rural areas, economic pressures and cultural practices lead many girls to drop out of school and enter into early marriage. In Malawi, 50 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthday. However, the promise of at least one nutritious meal a day can persuade poor families that sending their daughters to school is a good idea.
While school meals help children concentrate and pay attention in class, there are other benefits such as giving girls an equal opportunity for education. In 2011, WFP provided school meals to some 700,000 students in Malawi — and half of them were girls.
When you educate a woman, you educate a nation…so goes the saying. Indeed, research has found that education for girls is the key to good overall health and nutrition, higher gross national product and better gender balance in decision making at all levels of society. But perhaps most importantly, education allows girls like Grace to achieve their dreams.
“I hope to attend university and one day to become a nurse,” she says.
She would like to get married and have children too but only when she is good and ready.