A child bride for ‘Jozi’ men
The name Jozi (slang for Johannesburg) has been a source of hope for most unemployed Malawians for a long time.
It is also a hopeful word for most parents in Traditional Authority Kuntaja, but in a different context of landing ‘a rich son in-law’.
Random interviews with communities in the area indicate that the parents seem to be in competition to marry off their girl child. Most of the parents are so retarded in their thinking as they believe that when their child is educated, they would be bewitched.
The ‘Joni or Jozi’ men approach the girls, just like other men do and give them gifts which they take home. It seems the culture has become deep rooted because some parents do not even question where the gifts and money is coming from, and this ends up in child marriage(s).
Sadly, the men are not there for keeps, as they are fond of living their young bride expectant and abandoning them to wallow in poverty and misery.
Traditional leaders under Kuntaja’s jurisdiction in Blantyre lament that they are failing to deal with child marriage because the parents are fully involved.
Village Headman Chimutu says mothers of the children have become stubborn. They allegedly feel it’s their right to push their girls into marriage. He admits that child marriage is a big issue in his area because most parents seem to regard their girls as a source of wealth.
“Parents, especially women, are on the forefront doing this. Their husbands are also failing to guide them. The mothers have become so stubborn and feel more powerful on these issues,” he says.
Village Headman Chilaka of T/A Kuntaja says he is worried that child marriage is costing his area a lot. He says there are a few educated people, especially girls.
“Child marriage problem is being maintained by parents who have become hostile to anyone advising them against it. They feel nobody can tell them anything about their girl child’s fate. As far as I’m concerned, child marriage is real; there are many cases in my village. The men from Joni are the highest bidders,” he says.
Group Village Head Mtiza also heaps the blame on parents in as far as the issue of child marriage goes. He says most parents are somehow clueless about their responsibility of guiding their children.
“Parents want to marry off the children for their economic benefit. Since there are a lot of child marriages, many children are shunning school. A village needs educated people for it to progress,” he notes.
Unicef says child marriage often compromises a girl’s development as it usually results in early pregnancy and social isolation by interrupting her schooling, limiting her opportunities for career and vocational advancement and placing her at increased risk of domestic violence.
UNFPA says child marriages, coupled with school dropout for girls, are of big concern to Malawi. It says 25 percent of girls never finish primary school due to child marriage.
Child marriages have damaging consequences for young women and their families, as noted by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
These include higher-than-average maternal morbidity and mortality rates; higher infant mortality among their children; incapacity to responsibly raise their children to be productive citizens; higher rates of school dropout/ limited education; lack of personal and economic autonomy; limited participation in development; limited decision making in relation to their own lives; increased risk of domestic violence, HIV; and severe limitations in the enjoyment of the right to freedom of movement. In most cases, these issues deplete government resources through medication and the poverty tend to overburden the district councils in one way or the other.
Even though child marriage is refusing to die in Malawi, despite having laws and being party to various international treaties, communities are so committed towards reversing it. They are also trying everything possible to find a local solution to this problem.
Establishment of Mother Groups is one such solution. Mother Groups are a grassroots group of women, who are helping very much to rescue girls from child marriages and keeping them in school.
TA Kuntaja’s Mother Group Chairperson, Enifa Maulidi says child marriage is rampant in her area due to poverty. She says at times children get married because parents are not providing them with the basic needs such as notebooks, uniform and others.
In such situations, she says, mother groups try to counsel the parents but get various excuses. The parents claim that they are poor that is why they cannot provide for their children.
“They even say in their family, nobody is educated. They believe that once their children are educated, they will be bewitched. We have tried to convince them that this used to happen in the past; now every child has to go to school using free primary education. If you (a parent) are poor now, things will change for the better if a child is educated,” she explains.
Maulidi admits that she has experienced the evils of child marriage in her area as girls have acquired Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and early pregnancies, which have led to difficult deliveries.
Maulidi says she knows of six child brides who went against the advice of the mother group and are now suffering.
“They are living a very hard life. They are in poverty and now believe that we told them the truth about the effects of child marriages. They don’t even have basic needs. Some are married to the ‘Joni’ men others to men from this village,” she says.
Child Protection Officer for Blantyre Social Welfare Office, John Manyumba says even though Blantyre is widely regarded as a city district where people are expected to have high knowledge on social issues, child marriage is a big issue.
“Of course people have their own reasons for marrying off children but as Blantyre social welfare office, we ensure that we enlighten them on the rights of children and the Child Care, Justice and Protection Act. Communities say they are marrying off their girls due to poverty and the abuses that the women are encountering in their families. Others say they cannot afford school fees for their children. Others sit for Primary School Leaving Certificate but have no fees to proceed to secondary school. At times, it’s because of the parents’ unfounded beliefs on witchcraft that compound the situation. But we are doing everything possible to deal with the issue,” he says.
Executive Director of Comforting Arms for Needy Children, Chitekesa Gama, says his organisation is working in TA Kuntaja’s area because (despite being in Blantyre), the area is remotely located and has no means of getting the right information on child marriage and governance issues.
He says the organisation regularly carries out interface meetings with communities, traditional leaders and duty bearers to spot the problem and find solutions to them.
He says: “Parents, guardians and traditional leaders should look into these issues critically. Many children are getting married whilst young, but parents and traditional leaders need to take responsibility in spreading message to all people about the dangers of child marriages.”
“It’s true poverty is there but we need to find alternative means of earning a living other than marrying off children to ‘worthy men’. We are working with other stake holders to deal with this problem.”
A 2017 report of the 6th cohort of Malawi Human Rights Commission, commissioner’s report presented to President Peter Mutharika, says women and girls continue to bear the brunt of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, which is the worst form of gender-based discrimination. It says girls are also predominantly exposed to early and forced marriages.
Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Jean Kalilani recently noted that Malawi has the 11th highest rate of child marriage in the world and the 9th highest in Africa, but has had different legal victories.
Speaking at a Gender Policy dialogue meeting aimed at catalysing and strengthening the ongoing efforts to end child marriage in Malawi, Kalilani assured that government is trying everything possible to end child marriages using the Child Care Protection and Justice and the Gender Equality Acts among others.
Through the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill which Parliament passed in early 2015, Malawi raised the marriage age to 18 from 16.
Executive Director for Girls Not Brides, Lakshmi Sundaram says eight of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) could not be achieved without significant progress to end child marriage, including those related to poverty, health, education, nutrition, food security, inequality and economic growth.
She says a lack of attention to child marriage has held nations back from reaching six of the eight Millennium Development Goals. She says Child Marriage is not just a gross human rights violation. It also prevents nations from achieving many other development goals. It is very difficult to make progress on education, health or gender equality if child marriage issues are not resorted. Unless Malawi deals with the problem of child marriage, it will be hard to achieve the SDGs by 2030.
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