A grim wave in girls’ education

POSITIVE —Mary returned to school after giving birth

Malawi’s efforts to clamp down on early marriages are being dulled by worsening levels of poverty that are driving young girls into unhappy unions, ALICK PONJE writes.

One more dress, a single pair of shoes and some lotion were all 17-year-old Nagiye Lekemani needed to stay in school when some of her age-mates rushed into early marriages.

She is often calm and collected but her parents’ poverty and the allure of some convenient relief from a man she never loved thrust her into a union she wishes never was.


Her village, a flat stretch in Traditional Authority Nthache in Mwanza District, bears a wave of hopelessness where girls as young as 12 years drop out of school for marriages they seldom stand.

“I could knock off from school hungry and, most of the times, there was no food at home,” Nagiye said recently when we visited the border strip to gauge challenges girls go through in their education.

Her home is a testament of wretched lack—just two dwarf houses scantly thatched with decaying grass, surrounded by sparsely-filled tobacco and maize fields that clearly missed fertiliser this year.


But the grinding poverty here is nothing compared with the pain she endured when her uncle negotiated with an older man for her hand in marriage.

“I had one dress only; no shoes, no school bag, no lotion most of the times. Then the man who later became my husband approached my uncle and got permission to marry me. I accepted because of poverty in my parents’ house,” Nagiye says forlornly.

She spent less than five months in the union. The period, the young girl recalls, was like eternity. Every day had its own miseries, which she could not shoulder any longer.

“The man who married me was not better than my parents. He, too, was poor and what he had initially lured me with was nowhere to be seen,” she narrates.

Her experience epitomises what other girls in the country go through because of poverty in their parents’ homes.

Deputy head teacher of Fumbi Primary School, where Nagiye goes to, Blessing Gauti, admits the pathetic situation which forces girls to drop out of school.

“Of late, up to 20 girls have left school for marriage. We have worked tirelessly with stakeholders to bring them back to school. Still, some stick to the unions,” Gauti says.

He reckons that men who travel to South Africa in search of greener pastures entice the girls with money and other gifts through the girls’ parents with he aim of marrying them after returning.

“The truth is that the girls are not really interested in the marriages. Those whose unions have been nullified are doing quite well in class,” the teacher adds.

The 2015-16 Demographic Health Survey ranked Malawi as the ninth country in the world with the highest rate of child marriage for girls under 18, at 47 percent, and the second highest in Eastern and Southern Africa.

The survey showed a decrease from previous data, which showed that 52 percent of women married before the age of 18.

United Nations Children’s Fund notes that child marriages have contributed to an increase in maternal and neonatal mortality in Malawi, poor levels of education, gender-based violence and failure to access family planning

With a recent assessment by the United Nations Development Programme indicating that poverty levels are worsening in the country, more girls are likely to go into marriages before they are ready for them.

And in escaping problems in their parents’ homes, they will be attracted by some make-believe happiness which men, bent at taking advantage of their vulnerability, will portray at first sight.

Already, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Esmie Kainja, laments the ‘meagre’ resources allocated towards interventions to aid helpless girls.

During a social services budget analysis interaction two months ago, Kainja warned that girls who have been saved from early marriages might return to the pathetic unions because they would not get adequate support in their education endeavours.

She said: “Traditional leaders are working tirelessly to nullify child marriages and children are willing to come out of unions and go back to school. But they need material and financial support which is not there. This is a grey area, very grey, indeed.”

And Mary Wola, 19, fears that while she returned to Mwanza Secondary School after giving birth, not all girls who go through similar experiences might have that opportunity.

In her village, all she got after being selected to secondary school were dispiriting sentiments which later pushed her into early marriage.

“I regret what I did but what matters for me is to look forward with hope. However, there are other girls who might not return to school after being saved from early marriages,” Mary says.

Now in Form Two, she has reignited her dream of becoming a nurse to serve her community.

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