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Chats with dad as tool of addressing child marriage menace in Malawi

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BREAKING GENDER BARRIERS — Female graduates

During lunch hour on Sunday afternoon, Lytone Biriwita sat down with his daughter, Beatrice, 16, so they could enjoy an afternoon meal together. Nearly 60 other menjoined them with their daughtersat Molele Primary School, Traditional Authority Changata in Thyolo District.

This was a special day for Beatrice and the rest of the girls. Aside from sharing a meal with their dads – something they havenever done – they also got to talk to their fathers about their experiences as young girls in school.

“I have a duty to encourage my daughter to proceed with her education as well as I have a duty to provide for her,” said Lytone Biriwita in Chichewa.

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“I have also learnt that my daughter can make it and I will be there to guide my daughter to do whatever she wants and reach whatever goal she has.”

Biriwita’s daughter is part of the Engage programme being implemented by Girls Empowerment Network (Genet), a project that aims at encouraging girls to stay in school by addressing the problem of child marriages.

The group was having father-daughter chats to understand how they can better support their children to stay in school and reduce cases of child marriage.

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One issue facing young girls is that older boys are telling them lies to trick them into having sex, explained Takondwa Kaliwo, Genet Programme Advisor.

“This chat today has strengthened the relationship between me and my father. I can easily go to him to ask for guidance and advice,” Beatrice said.

Some of the girls told the group that boys will tell them myths like if they have sex they will receive vitamin K.

If the girls do not have a strong relationship with their fathers, they surely cannot demystify these rumours.

“We were hoping to establish productive communication between the daughters and their fathers because the event was founded after researching that the girls do not have enough time to chat with their fathers to tell them about the things they need to know,” Kaliwo said.

To succeed in school, girls need various items from notebooks to underwear and sanitary pads. They cannot ask their fathers for these items because some topics are taboo subjects in the home.

Kaliwo says a key challenge to ending cases of child marriage in Malawi is addressing the challenge of poverty young girls face, especially in the home. In rural areas, girls will be married off very young to improve their financial status and get the items that they lack from their parents.

According to a 2015 study ‘Engaging Men and Boys’ conducted by Greene et al., child brides are more likely to have an incomplete education, a higher rate of unwanted pregnancies and are at greater risk of sexual and reproductive health morbidities and maternal mortality compared to women who marry after the age of 18.

Many child brides leave school once they get married and never return. They do not gain the self-esteem and empowerment that education provides, limiting their livelihood opportunities and the country’s ability to develop.

“We are hoping they get interested in their child’s career path because it is also beneficial to men,” said Kaliwo. “Because then you have a society where both men and women are contributing to development. They now see the benefit of educating a girl-child as well as boys.”

Addressing culture not laws

Group Village Head Kuweluzo said they are ensuring that girls stay in school. Local leaders have put in place laws that punish parents who do not dissuade their kids from child marriages. The penalty is a payment to the chief of two goats or two chickens if they are caught breaking the law.

However, implementation of laws has had a slower effect on change in rural areas because of culture and entrenched attitudes that accept the practice.

According to Green’s study, India has the highest rates of rural child marriages in the world even though the practice was legally banned nearly 90 years ago. Similar trends are seen in Malawi, according to Genet’s research.

There were 158 registered child marriages in Changata last year, despite the national and local laws that were implemented.

A culture change that addresses the root causes of child marriages must accompany changes in law, specially a change in the patriarchal culture. Fathers, brothers, and uncles play a significant role in perpetuating child marriage because of inequitable gender norms.

Domestic practices force women to remain in their homes, engaging in unpaid labour, while their brothers go out and play, get educated, and make money in the city.

The girls at Engage are also having chats with their brothers to address the socio-cultural norms that drive these practices.

The sisters asked their brothers to help out around the house more so they can experience the same opportunities. They also had chats with their uncles about encouraging them to reject requests to get married under the age of 18.

As the day concluded, a chat with just the fathers and uncles took place. They started their own committees to champion male leaders for women and girls’ rights.

“I encourage my daughter and niece to have a vision and goals in life. I believe people should be independent and that God should make all things possible for them,” Biriwita.

In these groups, the men plan to talk about gender empowerment to their brothers and sons.

Kaliwo is hopeful for the future of girls in Malawi, saying that this is going to create a movement of men who are supporting girls education.

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