Empowering adults for change through ALE

Adija Bwanali, 53, who hails from Sidrick Village, Traditional Authority Amidu in Malawi’s eastern region district of Balaka is a good example of how beneficial Adult Learning and Education (ALE) has been even to those perceived by society to be too old to be in class where their grandchildren ought to be learning the alphabet, writing, reading and numerating.

Agness Nkusankhoma speaking during the 2022 International Literacy Day commemorations.

Adija Bwanali, 53, who hails from Sidrick Village, Traditional Authority  Amidu in Malawi’s eastern region district of Balaka is a good example of how beneficial Adult Learning and Education (ALE) has been even to those perceived by society to be too old to be in class where their grandchildren ought to be learning the alphabet, writing, reading and numerating.

Like many in her village, Bwanali did not have the opportunity of going to school in her infancy. In some cases, while opportunities were availed to learners, cultural and religious beliefs have pushed girls into early marriages. The case of Bwanali is not isolated. In this part of the country, fewer girls make it even to Form One at a conventional secondary school. That though, is beginning to change.

Bwanali and others who did not go to school when they were growing up, have been accorded free access to education through adult learning. That is why on September 8, International Literacy Day (ILD), Bwanali and her peers showed the world that regardless of one’s age, education has no limits. The ILD was started by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1966 [but commemorations started in 1967] to make ALE a reality around the world.

Speaking at this year’s ILD celebrations, whose theme was ‘Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces’, at Nkhonde Primary School in Balaka district, Bwanali said after graduating from ignorance to being knowledgeable, she now sees the world with different eyes.

Bwanali disclosed that before the Malawi Government and its partners availed her the opportunity to access ALE, she was disadvantaged in many ways. She could not count her money properly and confirm if she got the right amount in a business transaction. Vendors too took advantage of her when giving out loose change.

During elections it was not easy to vote for the right candidate as she could only rely on the picture of a candidate and not the text written on the ballot paper. In a given case where the picture of a contesting candidate was small and blurred, chances were high that she could have voted for a wrong candidate.

“All that is in the past. I am able to read, write and numerate without any problems. I can follow developments in my village and give my views wherever possible,” said Bwanali, who graduated with nine other villagers on September 8 this year.

Two other learners who graduated in their old age were Mariam Wilson – who read a text from a book in English and Patuma Maida – who read a text from a vernacular Chichewa book during the ILD cerebrations. All this was testimony that ALE is performing wonders on these grannies in line with what UNESCO Director General, Audrey Azoulay pointed out when he said: “I urge governments and the international community to join our efforts and take action to ensure that the right to education is realized for everyone – no matter their age, who they are, or where they live.”

Progress despite challenges

Malawi’s Deputy Minister of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, Agness Nkusankhoma said the country is on track in as far as ensuring inclusive and equitable education and promoting lifelong opportunities for all is concerned. She said this is in line with UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No 4.6.

Among other things, the SDG No 4.6 urges member states that by 2030, they should ensure that all youths and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.

But key constraints such as inadequate financing of ALE programming, inadequate human resources capacity, inadequate teaching materials and learning materials and lack of infrastructure all blight this important sector.

Nkusankhoma said government and its partners are fighting tooth and nail to provide user-friendly learning spaces to literacy learners to ensure quality, equitable and inclusive education for all.

Nkusankhoma said: “There are close to five million people in Malawi who do not know how to read, write and numerate. This is retrogressive. We are working tirelessly to reduce the number of those illiterate by making sure that community leaders value adult literacy/learning initiatives. We are encouraging community members to enrol in ALE programmes.

“It is communities that are literate and knowledgeable that can positively contribute to family, community and national development. We are also seriously looking into challenges that are frustrating adult literacy and education and strive to find solutions to these problems which in the end tend to stand in the way of development.”

Through the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, government wants to ensure that all Malawians who do not know how to read, write and numerate enrol in adult learning classes in their respective districts.

“I urge Malawians who cannot read and write to enrol with adult learning classes in their areas. Where they are not available people should demand these classes through their Members of Parliament, Councillors and Village Development Committees. Illiterate societies are only taking us back to years of underdevelopment. We need to forge ahead and leave no one behind; we must formulate policies that encourage inclusive education and help us achieve sustainable development,” said Nkusa-Nkhoma.

Apart from offering basic literacy and numeracy skills, the Malawi Government with technical and financial support from DVV International, is implementing Integrated Adult Education as pilot projects in selected districts. Through this approach, learners access entrepreneurship and other relevant skills in addition to literacy and numeracy.                                                                                                                                     

There is a ray of hope at the end of the tunnel in the ALE sector as the Malawi Government has approved the National Adult Literacy and Education Strategic Plan (2022-2027) with the purpose of operationalizing the National Adult Literacy and Education Policy (NALEP) which was approved by the Cabinet in 2020.

The strategic plan aims at bringing all stakeholders together and harnessing their efforts to, among other things, strengthen the policy and legal environment for implementation of ALE. The Ministry of Gender says, “the strategy aims to increase inclusive and accessible literacy, and enhanced skills development and education among adults for effective participation in personal, community and national development by 2027.”

While statistics show that across the globe, 774 million people (and in Malawi five million people) do not know how to read, write and numerate, Nkusankhoma is optimistic that Malawi will realize some gains. The target is to educate over two million adults to be literate by 2025. Globally, at least 84 people in every 100 are able to read and write.

“At the moment we have more women than men enrolling for adult literacy classes. Men shun these classes, but we have come up with a mechanism that will increase numbers. We have introduced Integrated Adult Education where both men and women will also have access to entrepreneurship and business skills,” she said.

Immediately after Cabinet approved the NALEP in 2020, DVV International Regional Director for Southern Africa, David Harrington, expressed gratitude for the Cabinet’s approval of the policy. He stated that the development was a huge step forward for the ALE sector in Malawi, which would help to improve coordination of efforts among all stakeholders to promote stronger and more responsive ALE programmes

The policy is an essential step in building a robust and sustainable adult education system in Malawi. It will help to improve coordination and collaboration among all stakeholders, guiding on best practices for service delivery and promoting partnerships for an ALE sector that is truly responsive to the needs of Malawi’s adult learners,”  Harrington said, and appealed to the government and the donor community to support the sector with the needed resources for implementation of the policy. 

Collaborative efforts key

Harrington said the challenges in the ALE sector need collaborative efforts to be eradicated. He bemoaned the low funding as detrimental to the future of the ALE sector which is key in the development societies and in line with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

“ALE sector issues are cross-cutting. They involve key areas such as gender, education, health, environment, energy and mining, agriculture and other national development areas. We need to collaborate and coordinate our efforts and increase financial and technical resources to ensure quality delivery of adult learning and education.

“The future looks bright, as such collaborations and networking among stakeholders are showing fruits. People are beginning to realise the importance of adult learning and education for development. The National Adult Literacy and Education Policy and National Adult Literacy and Education Strategic Plan provide a roadmap for the  implementation process of ALE activities for the next five years,” said Harrington.

UNESCO, a key partner in the ALE education sector said there are marked efforts in advancing education across the world. UNESCO Acting Deputy Executive Secretary in Malawi, David Mulera, said there are many challenges in the education sector, but statistics show that there has been progress as the literacy rate has improved.

“We need to mobilize more partners to support policy formulation and advance adult learning and learning. There is a need to review the curriculum so that we should improve delivery of services in the education sector,” Mulera said.

According to UNESCO’s Fifth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 5) published on 15 June 2022 at the 7th International Conference on Adult Education in Marrakech, Morocco, the main challenge for adult learning and education across the globe is to reach those who need it most.

UNESCO’s report shows that while there is progress, notably in the participation of women, those who need adult education the most – disadvantaged and vulnerable groups such as indigenous learners, rural populations, migrants, older citizens, people with disabilities or prisoners – are often deprived of access to learning opportunities.

About 60% of countries reported no improvement in participation by people with disabilities, migrants or prisoners. 24% of countries reported that the participation of rural populations declined, and participation of older adults has also decreased according to 24% of the 159 surveyed countries. GRALE 5 calls for a major change in Member States’ approach to adult learning and education backed by adequate investment to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to benefit from adult learning and education.

 Member of Parliament for Balaka Central East, the area which hosted the 2022 ILD in Malawi, Chifundo Makande, hailed the ALE initiative saying his constituents who a few years ago were unable to read, write and had challenges to numerate, are now graduating into those who are literate.

Through the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), Makande said he was ready to support the initiative with a goal to have more people benefit from ALE as this would translate into a society that is literate – a key component to national development.

“At community level these people will be able to read and write and do business transactions without any serious challenges. They have formed village banks through different groups and will have access to small loans to keep them going. Over ten groups will be getting their cheques soon. All this is possible because they are able to understand what in the past looked impossible; all this is possible because of ALE,” said Makande, who urged more people who still lack writing, reading and numeracy skills not to hesitate but join adult literacy classes.  

Funding towards ALE

In Malawi, most ALE programmes have been funded by government through the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, with a few NGOs coming in such as DVV International. Funding to ALE is less than 1% of the education sector budget. In 2003/2004, government allocation to adult literacy in comparison to that of the Ministry of Education Science and Technology was 0.48% (MK50,000,0000). This was reduced to 0.16% (MK21,048,752) in 2004/2005. While 2005/2006 and 2006/2007saw a slight increase to 0.18% (MK28,472,000) and 0.46% (MK82,318,876) respectively, it was reduced once again in 2007/2008 to 0.15% (MK42,414,889). Between 2012 and 2016, government funding ranged from K120 million in 2012/2013 to K80 million in 2016/2017. In the past five years, funding has declined from a high of MK309 million in 2017/2018 to around K104 million in 2020/2021, averaging just 0.16% of the education sector budget. 1 million Malawian Kwacha is less than 1,000 Euros at the current exchange rate.

So, for people like Adija Bwanali, Mariam Wilson and Patuma Maida who were part of the 10 learners who graduated in that hot sun on 8 September 2022 at Nkhonde Primary School in Balaka, meagre resources won’t even be the limit to get an education.

“Where there is a will there is always a way,” Bwanali said.


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