I was pleased to be able to speak in a debate at Parliament on Wednesday 11th November the Scotland and Malawi Co-operation Agreement. Please see below a copy of my speech:
David Livingstone played a major role in improving public health and freeing the indigenous population from the scourge of slavery in Africa and particularly in Malawi. He is a Scottish hero in the true sense. He left the world a better place than it was when he entered it. It is therefore only fitting that our former First Minister Jack McConnell recognised the work that David Livingstone did and which others have done in Malawi by establishing our partnership with that country 10 years ago. Jack McConnell can and should be proud of many achievements, but I am sure that that partnership remains among his greatest.
Many of us who have spoken or will speak in the debate have our own partnership with Malawi. I have spoken many times in the chamber and in other forums about my experience of Malawi and about my memories of it and friendships from my visit some three years ago.
Malawi remains among the poorest countries in the world. In the 2014 UN human development index report, it is ranked 174th out of 187. That ranking might improve when the latest report is issued in December, but it is a deeply depressing statistic. Malawi has a population of 16.36 million people, and their life expectancy is just 55. On average, people spend just four years in a school environment. In less developed rural areas, the incidence of HIV and AIDS is six times higher among women than among men because of the sex trade that is so evident in the country.
In education, much of the discrimination that women experience is deeply ingrained in Malawian culture. Until the early 1960s, Malawian girls were not allowed to attend school. Female education is still viewed by many as irrelevant. Far fewer girls progress through primary education, and female literacy levels are substantially inferior to male literacy levels.
It is important that our partnership with the country strives to make the situation better. The Scottish Government has a large part to play in gaining greater equality for women, particularly in education, but it is heartening to know that local schools, churches and organisations are also taking up that cause. I often talk about the role that St Margaret’s high school in Airdrie has played in that regard, but Falkirk high school, which is another school in my region, has also worked to support female education. Falkirk high school is linked with Bandawe secondary school. The partnership dates back to 2007, and the motto of the partnership is:
“The Two Will Make a Difference”.
That is a simple but powerful statement.
Projects such as the mother group project and the girls go for health initiative, which are part of the North Lanarkshire healthy lifestyle project that is run by Charles Fawcett in conjunction with the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Malawi, have been working hard to narrow the gender divide. The mother group project works to encourage more women to attend school, and the girls go for health initiative strives to keep them there. Women are provided with hygiene and sanitary products and with financial aid for school fees and educational materials, and workshops are organised to encourage male pupils to respect and value their female peers.
A further project that I am aware of because of a local connection is classrooms for Malawi. Its chairperson is James Kelly, who is a parishioner of St Bernadette’s parish in Motherwell. As I have said in previous debates, that parish has its own partnership with Malawi.
Classrooms for Malawi believes
“that the only sustainable route out of poverty is education.”
“We work throughout Malawi to improve places of education in some of the world’s poorest communities. Recent estimates show that around 2 million children in Malawi are either taught in unsafe and unfit classrooms, outdoors, or simply cannot go to school as the facilities are not there. We want to put an end to this.”
St Bernadette’s parish, of which I am a parishioner, has a partnership with St Anne’s parish in Namulenga. Through that partnership and through classrooms for Malawi, it has helped to renovate Namulenga girls school. It would have been understandable if the parish had stopped there, but it has now switched its focus to helping to foster a better educational environment by providing backpacks, school supplies, transport and furniture as well as toys for the children in the nursery. The parish sent a container in September, which should arrive any day now.
We often speak in the chamber about education, and rightly so, but we can too often forget how privileged we are to have access to education in our country. My experience of Malawi still drives me to this day. It is not an exaggeration to say that my visit made me a better person and changed my outlook on life.
We have achieved a great deal in 10 short years. I am sure that we can achieve a whole lot more in the next 10 years.