Teenage pregnancies and early marriages are some of the pervasive problems affecting health, social, economic, political progress and empowerment of adolescent girls in Malawi. A recent report by Centre for Child Wellbeing and Development indicates that some traditions are a contributing factor but, in this Friday Shaker, MANDY PONDANI discusses a familiar but rarely-talked-about issue of parents’ divorce and how it continues to exacerbate cases of teenage pregnancy and early marriage.
Mercy (not real name), 14, lives with her one-year-old son, mother and grandmother in a dilapidated house in the remote area of Mlongoti in Karonga District.
She fell pregnant at the age of 13 while in standard six at Vuwa Primary School but had no idea that she was pregnant until seven months later when she fell sick, including from acute anaemia.
She says the abuse and abject poverty she and her two siblings faced after their mother and father divorced when she was 11 years old exposed her to early sexual activities, with older men and boys taking advantage of her situation.
Mercy says, after her parents called it quits, she was sent to live in a rural community of Mlare, Karonga Central, with her father while her mother moved on to have a second shot at marriage with her new-found love.
“It was the most difficult time of my life. My father was an alcoholic. He did not fend for us and, at every opportunity, physically abused us by beating us up and not giving us food. We spent nights in the bush with nowhere to run to,” she says.Advertisement
Things got out of hand for Mercy when her father remarried; everything in her life crumbled, with the father completely abandoning his responsibility of providing school materials to his children.
She was among the star performers in her class, according to teachers at her school, but her grades slowly but surely started declining.
“We hardly got money to pay for examination fees and had no school uniforms. We simply had no support for anything. Life in school got really tough,” Mercy says.
It was difficult for the three children, according to Mercy, to move in with their mother who was settling in with her new spouse.
Mercy says: “Suddenly, some secondary school boy, Tony, from Chirumba befriended me. We became so close that he used to provide me with all the school necessities I was lacking, including money for examination fees.”
The relationship with Tony turned sexual despite that she had not reached puberty.
Before her first menstruation, Mercy fell pregnant and eventually gave birth to her now one-year-old son Chisomo.
Mercy says she never experienced the so-called common morning sicknesses until the seventh month when she fell sick.
“I felt something moving in my tummy. I had no idea what it was. The pain got so excruciating that I started absenting myself from classes. My teachers had no idea either, until my mother was called and took me to the clinic where my pregnancy was confirmed,” Mercy says.
Her mother, 33-year-old Esther Nyondo, says the moment her daughter’s pregnancy was confirmed, she was afraid, knowing the burden and pain associated with childbearing.
“I never thought that she would make it. With challenges such as acute anaemia and malnutrition, safe delivery was unlikely at such a tender age. But, by God’s grace, she safely delivered a baby boy who we named Chisomo,” Nyondo says.
Asked about the father of the baby, Mercy and Nyondo say they have never heard from him even after word was sent to him and his parents that Mercy had gone into labour.
At that point, Nyondo says, she prepared herself for a second divorce at 31, knowing that her second husband could not accept a stepdaughter with a newly born child.
True to her fears, they parted ways as she opted to be there for her daughter and grandson.
“I accepted my daughter’s predicament knowing that, if I and her father were together, perhaps she could not have found herself in such a situation. Life had to go on. Mercy had to return to school,” Nyondo says.
Asked about motherhood at such a tender age, the bubbly Mercy, who dreams of becoming a nurse, says: “It is very hard to take care of a child when you are a child yourself. But I am thankful to my supportive mother who has borne the burden of this baby so that I go back to school.”
Mercy’s journey back to school was not as hard as anticipated, chairperson of the mother group in the area Lennie Ngwira attests.
Realising how vulnerable the family had become due to poverty and marital challenges, Ngwira says the group intervened in Mercy’s case to offer moral and psychological support to her and the mother.
“Among us were two females going through a difficult time. Two failed marriages and a daughter with a child from an unplanned pregnancy. This subjected the pair to public shame and ridicule. We, therefore, stepped in with a message of hope and encouragement,” she says.
The group’s chairperson emphasises the need for workable arrangements to protect children when marriages fail, saying, with rising divorce rate in the district, children are affected the most.
Nyondo says they encouraged Mercy to return to school and the mother was advised to embrace the daughter and support her to ensure that she concentrates on studies.
The group mobilised resources for Mercy and, by September 2018, she was back in classroom.
“Our coming in just strengthened her resolve. She is among the hardworking students and the future looks promising for her. Having a baby is not the end of the road,” she says.
The group, together with school authorities such as Headmaster Boyd Mhango, collaborated to stimulate Mercy’s interest in school.
But Mhango bemoans lack of female role models in the area and that girls entrapped in poverty fall prey to advances from moneyed fishers.
The problem, according to him, is worse among children from single-parent households.
Mercy’s class teacher, Taona Munthali, corroborates Mhango’s sentiments, saying: “We ensure that girls like Mercy re-integrate into the school system, raise awareness of their rights and ensure they are safe from all forms of abuse and discrimination.”
Malawi, according to the 2016 Laurens Cherchyey’s research, has one of the highest divorce rates in Africa.
The findings indicate that, in Malawi, lifetime divorce probabilities are between 40 and 65 percent.
Commenting on the findings in relation to Mercy’s story, Village Head Mlongoti says broken marriages are a new monster compromising girls’ future.
He says, much as the problem could be widespread across the country, it is worse in the lakeshore district of Karonga.
The chief says the trend is a departure from Ngonde tradition which permits men to marry more than a wife if the first marriage fails, instead of abandoning the whole family.
“We are a patrilineal society; polygamy is allowed. But sometimes men just have the urge of jumping from one partner to another at the expense of children. In modern days, we see that this is causing a lot of problems,” he said.
Mlongoti faults traditions which expose girls and boys to sexual activities.
He, however, says, as chiefs, they endeavour to set by-laws to protect children from early marriages and teen pregnancies.
Vuwa Primary School He-for-She Patron, Webster Ngwira, says, being a patriarchal society, men are at the centre of perpetrating the vices.
Ngwira says poverty is among the biggest drivers of child marriage and teenage pregnancy as some parents marry off their daughters to ease financial burdens while, in extreme cases, others give them as a form of debt repayment.
“At the national level, the picture might not be as gloomy as at the grassroots. We would like to appeal to the government, through the line ministry, to ensure that the efforts trickle down to remote places if Malawi is to win the fight against early marriages and teen pregnancies,” Ngwira says.
Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Principal Secretary, Erica Maganga, says her ministry, through relevant legislations such as Marriage, Divorce And Family Relations Act, ensures that rights of all parties in a family union, even at a time of separation, are not violated, with a focus on the girl-child.
“We do not want to see children withdrawing from school, let alone being abused even when their parents’ divorce. The law cannot force people to stay together. It, however, safeguards children when such things happen,” she says.
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