Students in a Malawai school

Problems Facing the Education System in Malawi

Malawi, a country in Southern Africa, has an education crisis. While Malawi’s primary school enrollment rate is about 90 percent, the quality of education remains poor. Students rarely meet educational goals, miss many days of school, and routinely repeat grades. Students with special needs are often not able to attend school at all or are placed in an educational environment where they don’t have the resources they need to learn. UNICEF reports that even though students in Malawi complete 9 years of school by age 18, the poor quality of education means they have completed the equivalent of 5 years. For Malawian children, education is the key to breaking out of the poverty cycle and living a more productive life.

Key Takeaways:

  • • Malawi’s educational system is overextended, which leads to poorer educational outcomes (e.g., low literacy rates) and high dropout rates, particularly for young girls.
  • • Students frequently enroll in and drop out of school due to frequent illness or because of job responsibilities and family obligations.
  • • Low education rates lead to a greater risk of the following for children:
    • ✓ forced labor
    • ✓ child marriage
    • ✓ teen pregnancy
    • ✓ gender-based violence
    • ✓ sexual abuse and exploitation
Children in Malawi

Education in Malawi

In 1994, the government of Malawi introduced free primary school education. While this opened education to all Malawian children, it also put a large strain on the education system. Malawi still struggles with one of the worst teacher-to-student ratios in the world (1:130), small classrooms and a lack of materials. Additionally, teachers in Malawi face high levels of burnout and low motivation because of the poor working conditions and lack of materials. Rural communities especially struggle to attract teachers. For example, in Malawi, communities must provide housing to attract qualified teachers, which is an expense communities often simply cannot afford. Even within larger towns, teachers must work in outdated (or sometimes even unsafe) classrooms with few resources and too many students.


Lack of Preschool Resources

Additionally, students entering primary school are not prepared. Unlike in the United States, preschools are not widespread. All preschools in Malawi are run completely by the community, without any government funding or support. Teachers work for free without the proper resources, and nearly half of preschool students are malnourished. For primary school students, entry into the educational system is often delayed past the recommended age, and students frequently have to repeat grades — even then, that’s often not enough to develop literacy. In 2016, USAID found that 83 percent of Standard 1 (equivalent to the United States’ first grade) students cannot read a single syllable in Chichewa (the language of instruction for primary school in Malawi), and 92 percent cannot read a single word. 

Low Completion Rates

Less than half of Malawian students complete their primary school education on time. Unfortunately, young children in Malawi, particularly girls, are often pulled out of school to support their family financially, to care for ill or young family members, or because they are ill themselves. Girls, may also feel unsafe traveling to and from school due to the increased threat of gender-based violence, especially those who must travel long distances. 

As you might imagine, it is frustrating for students to attend class and still not meet their educational goals. Overcrowded classrooms strongly influence the high dropout rates in Malawi. Without the one-on-one feedback from teachers and resources, many students feel that education is simply not worth it. Parents may also feel that because their children are not meeting the basic educational milestones they are paying for, it is better to keep their children at home. Most Malawian students (84 percent) do not continue their education past primary school. For many students, attending secondary school is not an option because they are expected to contribute to the household income. Children who live below the poverty line (more than half of Malawi’s population) have especially high dropout rates and rarely return to secondary school. The few students who do return to secondary school often drop out — only 8 percent of all Malawian students complete secondary schooling. 

Womengetting water

Other Impacts

Especially for women and girls, lower education rates directly correlate to higher incidences of childhood marriage, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS infection rates, and continued poverty. Additionally, low education rates are closely linked to other issues, like poor sanitation and hygiene, malnutrition, and gender-based violence. These tend to influence each other girls who lack access to sanitary products during their monthly cycle will often stay home from school, missing out on valuable education. 

Children getting water at a well

What Can Be Done?

The United Nations has identified education as the key to breaking out of poverty towards national development. Malawians (especially women) who complete primary and secondary education can expect to earn significantly higher wages, helping bring their families above the poverty line. Schools in Malawi need support — smaller class sizes; access to resources like textbooks, pencils and paper; and greater emotional support for teachers can all make a big difference in the quality of education.

Other Barriers to Education

In addition to providing improved education, it is important to address the other barriers to school attendance in Malawi. For example, children need nutritional meals and access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). This is especially important for preventing common waterborne illnesses that cause chronic diarrhea, a major cause of students staying home from school. Malawian students would also be able to attend school more often if they had access to basic health care, particularly HIV care. For girls, access to menstrual products and a safe restroom can mean the difference between attending school and missing multiple days of instruction. 

As Catholics, it is our duty to transform poorer communities around the globe and provide them with the resources they need to raise themselves out of poverty. Cross Catholic Outreach’s Empowering Children Through Education program helps children break out of the poverty cycle by providing quality education, nutritional meals and Catholic spiritual formation to boys and girls in Malawi. Learn how you can get involved today.

Donations from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2024, the close of our ministry’s fiscal year. In the event that more funds are raised than needed to fully fund the project, the excess funds, if any, will be used to meet the most urgent needs of the ministry.