At 16 years old, Colleta Mtenje of Mkweta Village in the Area of Traditional Authority Kalembo in Balaka is already a mother of two.
She is not married yet as the fathers of her two kids are nowhere to be seen.
She explained how the father of her first child run away and dumped her when he realised that she was pregnant.
She had gone to Mangochi to look for opportunities.
“A well-wisher who saw how I was suffering took me to Mangochi where she gave me a piece work which paid me K5,000 per month, this was not enough for my day-to-day needs,” she said.
That is when she was enticed to enter into a sexual relationship with a businessman in the lakeshore district, who was giving her extra money; but he would soon impregnate and dump her.
“I ended up in a sexual relationship with one of the men there. It was in 2017 when I was 13 years old that I gave birth to my first child,” Colleta narrated.
She is now back home at Mkweta Village with her three-year-old and seven-month-old children and says life is hard.
“I am struggling to meet my needs, let alone the needs of my two daughters, I lack proper housing, food and clothing and when I need food its either I go to my mother’s or grandmother’s house,” she said.
Unlike her friends who have ever set foot in class, Colleta has never had any education since she was born.
Thoughts of starting school are as distant now as they were when she was just a child.
“I have never been in class before because my father was not supporting me…in the past when there was electricity around here, I used to sell locally-brewed drinks like thobwa but now, I sell fish for fishermen who pay me K1, 000 per day, that is how I managed to build a house,” Colleta added.
The rickety ‘house’ is more of a shack that could also bring more trouble for her should it collapse.
Her hopes lie in a good husband she hopes would one day take care of her and the children.
But for now, she relies heavily on her mother, 38 year old Hawa Douglas, a mother of four; her first born is a 22 year old man whom she gave birth to when she was 16 years old.
Douglas survives by selling roasted fish while her daughter Colleta sells the same kind of fish for fishermen.
Elsewhere, 21 year old Loveness Shaibu and 18 year old Assah Mhango are lucky.
Loveness is in form four while Assah is in form two at Namalomba secondary school in Balaka District.
The two were encouraged to go back to school after giving birth to their children.
But not Colleta, who has to face the daily realities of being a single mother of two in a poor rural area.
But despite the challenges they are facing such as discrimination and stigma, Loveness and Assah have been given a second chance in life and they are looking forward to a life free of the pangs of poverty they faced earlier in life once they finish their studies.
“When I become pregnant, my parents told me that it was not the end of life, they encouraged me to reserve a place at school and now that I stopped breast feeding, I am back at school suffice to say that I continue facing ridicule and discrimination at my home village,” Assah said.
Loveness, on the other hand, said she did not think she would become pregnant when she engaged in sexual encounters with her boyfriend.
“It came as a surprise to me, because as a young girl, I thought I could never become pregnant,” She said.
Balaka District has one of the highest school dropout rates and teenage pregnancies in Malawi due to what activists say are some cultural practices and norms.
For example, 67 out of 100 adolescent girls in the district dropped out of school in the year 2019.
Activists attribute the development to limited access and usage of family planning methods among adolescents in the district.
Had Assah, Loveness and Colleta accessed these family planning methods, they could still be in school and could not have lost the school time they had due to pregnancy.
The three are now using various family planning methods.
Figures from the Centre for Alternatives for Victimized Women (Cavwoc) now show a drop in teenage pregnancies from 38 percent in 2019 to around 32 percent in 2020.
One of the organisation’s officers, Khumbolane Nyirenda, attributed the reduced figures to community participation in efforts to ensure that the girl child remains in school, apart from easing access to family planning methods among adolescents in the district.
“We have been working with communities to ensure that adolescent girls have access and are using contraceptives as one way of ensuring that they stay in school,” Nyirenda said.
Acid Meeting of Kalembo in Balaka District participates in efforts aimed at keeping the girl child in school.
Meeting is among members of a community action group that protects girls from abuse apart from ensuring that when young people visit health facilities, they are assisted accordingly.
But apart from fighting abuse, Meeting and others in such groups are also fighting long entrenched cultural norms that have facilitated unsafe sexual behaviour in the district.
It is these cultural practices that have, for a long time, fueled gender based violence and teenage pregnancies in the area.
But Meeting said through drama and other means, the battle is being won.
“Together with traditional leaders, health care workers and other organisations, we are trying our best to fight such vices as initiation ceremonies so much that such practices are scarce now, and whenever people want circumcision, they now visit health centers which is contrary to what was happening before,” he said
It is clear that we need to do more as a society to combat cultural practices that run parallel to the well-being of adolescents. For now, Meeting and his friends have a shown the way to go.
Eric Msikiti is a Senior Reporter/News Producer at Times Group. Though relatively young, Eric boasts years of experience in Malawi’s media industry.