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DREAMS Innovation Challenge inspires girls to dream big

April 26, 2018

When Isabel Ndindi stepped onto a bus taking secondary school girls from the Zomba district in Malawi to a girls’ leadership conference, she did not know that it was a step toward a transformation in her beliefs about education and women’s leadership. “Before the conference,” Isabel said,” I thought that only boys should continue their education beyond secondary school and become leaders.”

Isabel Ndindi, DREAMS Innovation Challenge participant, Zomba, MalawiIsabel is 17 years old and is in Form 3 at Namadidi Community Day Secondary School in southern Malawi. The only daughter in a family of three children, she has grown up in a society where cultural tradition and religion do not encourage girls’ education. Isabel was among 362 secondary school girls from the Machinga and Zomba districts who participated in the 2017 conference, held in the Chiradzulu district. FHI 360 organized and conducted the conference as part of the DREAMS Innovation Challenge program, funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

One of the primary aims of the DREAMS Innovation Challenge is to improve adolescent girls’ and young women’s access to, retention in and completion of secondary education in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In Malawi, program activities include providing scholastic support and opportunities for mentorship to girls from public secondary schools.

Another component of the DREAMS Innovation Challenge is to tackle the underlying cultural factors, including discriminatory cultural norms, gender inequality and sexual violence, that cause adolescent girls and young women in Malawi to experience disproportionately higher dropout rates at the secondary school level. The program raises community awareness about the importance of girls’ education, strengthens youth-friendly health services for adolescent girls so they can stay in school, advances women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health, and addresses the issues of school-related gender-based violence, gender norms and cultural practices.

The conference and the support given by the program have motivated Isabel to improve her school attendance. Unlike previous school terms, she has not missed any classes this term. And, she has higher expectations for her future. “I did not know that in Malawi, there are women who hold high-ranking positions, such as high court judges, university professors and chief executive officers, because in our community, all the leaders, including teachers, are men,” she said. “After interacting with professional women at [the] conference, I realize that I have potential like any other person. I am inspired to dream big and aim to become an engineer. I have learned that I, too, can rise above the social barriers to become who I want to be if I stay focused on my education.”

Photo caption: Isabel Ndindi, DREAMS Innovation Challenge participant, Zomba, Malawi

Photo credit: DREAMS Innovation Challenge