By Imam Wali:
At 21, Thokozani Mkandawire from Traditional Authority Nzikubola in Mzimba District has felt and seen it all. She made the mistake of marrying at the age of 14, which at the time, she thought was a good gamble. She now regrets the move as her eight years in marriage have been nothing but hell. And yet, her family members kept prodding her on, saying it was all part of growth.
Thokozani, a beautiful young woman, to this day, still finds it hard to understand as to why she dropped out of school and rushed into marriage; worse still, marrying somebody who turned her life upside down.
“I had hoped that the wedding would change my fortunes and that of my family, but I was totally wrong as things have turned out worse. After the colorful big day, the expectations were high but just six months into the marriage, my husband told me that he was travelling to South Africa for greener pastures… then I was four months pregnant,” Mkandawire explained.
Indeed, the rainbow nation offers more opportunities than Malawi but that has come with a price for most families and Thokozani’s is no exception.
Like any other woman wishing to see her husband and family excel in these economic hard times, she gave her husband the benefit of doubt. Little did she know that the so called ‘journey to make it in life’ would prove to be too devastating.
She has now become the laughing stock of the whole village because, while the lives of her former schoolmates have drastically improved, hers continue to deteriorate by each passing day. It has been over seven years since her husband took off for South Africa but it is crystal clear that he is not returning home anytime soon.
He neither sends child support nor assistance to sustain the family. As if that is not enough, she caught wind of that her ‘supposed’ husband had tied another knot with a Zulu woman.
But as per cultural norms, Thokozani is forced to stay put at her matrimonial home. It is quite surprising, that both her relatives, including those from her husband’s side, are the ones trying so hard to convince her that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“I strongly blame bad cultural practices for it has hugely contributed to my problems as this was an arranged marriage. Some of these decisions were made when I was still young,” she said.
A lot of women are going through similar experiences or even worse. Some women are being abandoned or divorced outright, through courts or discreetly, while a few others are suffering in silence simply because they are holding on to hope that perhaps, one day, their scenario would change. This knowingly or unknowingly causes trauma in most families.
Whatever the circumstance, violence against women, in whatever form, should not be tolerated by the society.
Fatima White from Mwawa Village, Traditional Authority Kasumbu in Dedza District is another woman who not only feels let down by tradition but rues the day she decided to commit to marriage with a man who is now domiciled in South Africa.
A mother of four, Fatima’s story is slightly different from that of Thokozani in that her husband visits their home once in a blue moon but is not rendering any family support.
When this ‘holiday’ is over, Fatima is forced to use her hard earned money to cover her husband’s transport fare and is left with debts to cover.
Thokozani and Fatima are not the only ones because a lot of young women across the country are suffering the same.
But thanks to a local Non-Governmental Organisation, Coalition for the Empowerment of Women and Girls (CEWAG), some women especially in Mzimba District have now begun to understand that this is some form of Gender Based Violence (GBV) and that it has to be stopped with immediate effect.
According to CEWAG Executive Director, Beatrice Mateyu, GBV has negative effects on families hence their commitment to eliminate the vice.
“We have observed that migration of men to South Africa is fueling increased cases of GBV in the district. Most young men after getting married live behind their wives who in turn have to endure unfair treatment from their in-laws,” Mateyu said.
However, Mateyu said there now seems to be a paradigm shift as men have also been trained as champions of change against GBV.
Mzimba Police Crime Desk Officer, Peter Chima, said time and again, the Victim Support Unit (VSU) at the station records cases of marital cases.
“These cases are common here in Mzimba and something has to be done to stop the behaviour of these ‘absent’ men. Since these children grow up without a parent, chances are high that they may end up being prostitutes and thieves because they are not getting parental guidance and care,” he said.
One of the women who recently benefited from the training that CEWAG is conducting, Tereza Phiri from Embangweni ,under Village Headman Gondwe in Mzimba, did not mince words, saying it is true that some cultural practices are fueling the trend.
“Cultural practices are exposing us to human rights violations at the hands of our husbands. Our children have stopped going to school due to lack of support,” she said.
Inkosi Mpherembe of Mzimba said it is hard to overcome the challenge of migration of men to South Africa because people go to other countries to search for jobs which are scarce in Malawi.
“The problem is that the jobs are found in other countries and our men go to try their luck in other countries like South Africa, so it is hard for us to stop them from going although this problem is, to a large extent, working against fighting various forms of abuses including child abuse and GBV,” he said.
Well, unless things improve on the local front in terms of job creation and business opportunities, a lot of men will continue trekking to other countries, leaving their spouses such as Thokozani and Fatima to struggle with responsibilities here at home.