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The Naweza Project (meaning “I can” in Swahili)

Girls' Education and Empowerment

Photo of Edith Joster
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Written by

What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

Naweza addresses gender-based inequality and disparities in Dzaleka Refugee Camp by empowering refugee girls and increasing their access to quality education and economic opportunities. Naweza is scalable, adaptable, and offers benefits to the entire community. In 1994, Dzaleka opened to accommodate 4,000 people. Today it houses 40,000 asylum seekers and refugees. With an average of 500 new arrivals each month, Dzaleka is overcrowded and educational services cannot keep up with growth. Dzaleka has one formal primary and one secondary school. The lack of teaches leads to a student: teacher ratio of 87:1. While the number of girls and boys attending school in lower primary school is nearly equal, from sixth grade, girls begin to fall behind and drop out. Lack of sanitation and security, economic pressures, early marriage and pregnancy, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and a lack of future educational opportunities are the primary causes. Naweza addresses these challenges. Based on girls’ input, Naweza provides sanitary packs, WASH facilities and protective infrastructure to make school attendance regular and safer. Naweza organizes community engagement activities to raise awareness and buy-in for girls’ education that increases long-term economic possibilities. Naweza Girls’ Clubs provide life-skills training and empowerment to deal with gender stereotypes of early marriage and SGBV. Naweza coordinates a scholarship program that encourages girls to attend boarding school and then enrol in Malawian universities; a mentoring program for scholarship recipients increases their chances of success. Girls' and women’s education and economic empowerment brings increased stability and opportunity to the local community. Sensitization, conflict reduction, and increased economic activity are contributions beyond Naweza itself.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

Naweza is rooted in Dzaleka refugee camp, situated near the capital city of Lilongwe in central Malawi. The camp was established in 1994 to house asylum seekers and refugees fleeing Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. As a next step, JRS aims to contextualize Naweza and deliver it to other refugee settings in need of gender-responsive education programming. Another Naweza pilot has been designed for eastern Chad, where JRS serves 64,000 people in education programs.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

Education can be both a critical process for personal, holistic and a long-term investment in building peaceful, thriving communities. Despite a long-term encampment policy, Malawi now allows refugees to work within the education and health fields. Naweza increases girls’ access to education, nurtures gender equity and social cohesion, and empowers girls to contribute to Malawi’s development agenda. Therefore, Naweza builds bridges beyond survival to potential and equips diverse communities.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

Naweza and JRS believe in the need and the power of education for girls. Education restores normalcy and provides protection, empowering youth to build knowledge, skills, and hope for the future. Education is a human right widely denied to forcibly displaced youth. Only 61% of refugee children have access to primary school, dropping to 23% for access to secondary school and only 1% for higher education. Out-of-school children are at a higher risk of early marriage, recruitment into armed groups, and survival sex. Globally, there are only 7 refugee girls for every 10 refugee boys in secondary school. 22% of young people access secondary education in Malawi; the percentage is even lower for refugee girls who are vulnerable to exclusion from education by being girls, and being refugees. Educating girls offers hope, an economic future, and innumerable benefits to girls, their families and local communities.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

Implementation offers 3 benefits within the community of focus. Naweza increases the availability and quality of gender-responsive education at upper primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. This improves retention, academic performance and economic stability. Increasing capacity creates more space and support for girls to succeed. Naweza advances gender equality: elevating the status of girls, improving respect for their human rights, and enabling policies and services to respond better to their needs. Gender equality builds peace, dialogue, and reconciliation. Naweza accelerates social and economic integration of refugees into Malawian society and reduces their economic marginality. Naweza improves women’s access to and completion of education, providing more opportunities for decent and remunerative work and the stability and confidence work brings. Economic development and integration contribute to durable solutions for forcibly displaced people and help build stable communities.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

Perfect & her sister 12 & 14-year-old orphans from Burundi, arrived in Dzaleka in 2012. They completed secondary school, but due to lack of opportunities, Perfect’s sister got married. In 2017 Perfect participated in a focus group on challenges faced by girls in Dzaleka. She described how girls missed school because they had to take care of siblings; she noted SGBV was the norm in camp. She saw friends forced to marry so their families had fewer mouths to feed. Perfect wanted something different for herself & her sister. Perfect’s insights & persistence helped to found Naweza. She participated in the project design, facilitated the first Girls’ Clubs, & now studies social work at Catholic University through a Naweza scholarship. Her sister, a mother of 2 children, studies engineering there. Perfect says, "I will not allow challenges I have met in life to stop me. I will use them as stepping stones to a brighter future. I believe other girls in camp will cross with me into this future."

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

According to Global Finance Magazine, Malawi is the world’s fourth-poorest country. Dzaleka is a diverse community in Dowa district with Congolese, Burundian, Rwandese, and other refugees living alongside Malawians in a highly-dynamic environment. Dzaleka is not spared from Malawi’s poverty. Dzaleka is resource-constrained, and poverty affects the community. Less than 10% of adults are employed, bringing chronic food and income insecurity. Food shortages intensify psychosocial disorders, often leads to skipped meals, illegal harvesting, and survival sex. Conflicts arise between refugees and local community members. Community groups have taken proactive steps–community market days and an annual Dzaleka music and cultural festival open to all—to lessen such conflicts. Acknowledging these realities, Malawians and refugees generally interact positively in the marketplace, at schools, places of worship, and other places in the community. There is a foundation for what Naweza offers.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

Naweza builds upon assets and strengths already present in the Dzaleka community. Broad-based community support for improving access and quality of education is present within the camp. Psychosocial workers and classroom teachers in both primary and secondary school reinforce Naweza’s goals. Key stakeholders, including the camp management, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other agencies have been champions of the idea from the ground up. UNHCR’s higher education scholarship program - the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI)—open to male and female applicants, is now being administered by Naweza. Many boys and men within the camp are already ambassadors for girls’ education. As a next step, Naweza will further leverage this support by offering Boys’ Clubs to deepen the community understanding of gender equity. Naweza embraces these community assets and strengths to foster an environment for success.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

Naweza works closely with individual families, community-based organizations like Vijana Africa, and the parent-teacher association. Local businesses in Lilongwe have given in-kind support for Naweza. This first level of support is critical to community buy-in and understanding. Local camp management and the Malawian Ministry of Home Affairs are also key stakeholders. Naweza also works closely with the Catholic University of Malawi, where Perfect, her sister and six other scholarship students are currently enrolled. Naweza also works with several secondary schools, including Our Lady of Wisdom secondary school in Blantyre, where the project has placed ten students. The project partners with the Fidel Götz Foundation and is also exploring partnerships with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and OXFAM. JRS Malawi is an implementing partner of UNHCR and works closely with other agencies such as IOM, OXFAM and Plan International.

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Arriving and settling at a destination community

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Systems design: Solutions that target changing larger system

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Pilot: We have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users. The feasibility of an innovation is tested in a small-scale and real world application (i.e. 3-15% of the target population)

Group or Organization Name

Naweza: Girls' Education and Empowerment Project of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

Naweza is inspired by the girls and women of Dzaleka, who provided the initial ideas and designs for the project. It began as a grassroots effort among concerned women who wanted to identify the key challenges to education and opportunity for women in Dzaleka, and develop long-lasting, impactful solution. Through partnerships with JRS International and key external partners, Naweza has grown to have an impact throughout Dzaleka and beyond. The Naweza Project formally became a project of JRS Malawi in 2017; its work is managed by a Project Coordinator employed by JRS Malawi. JRS Malawi is led by a country director and is overseen by the JRS Southern Africa regional office. Both offices belong to the wider JRS global network. JRS was founded in November 1980 to respond to the plight of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their war-ravaged homeland and now accompanies forcibly displaced people in 56 countries

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country

Lilongwe, Malawi - Country Office

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Johannesburg, South Africa – Regional Office Rome, Italy – International Office


Join the conversation:

Photo of NDEF Cameroon

Hi Edith Joster, welcome to the Challenge. We wish you success in your good work!

Photo of Edith Joster

Thank you NDEF