It is the first day of a fresh school year. Pupils of Chilumba Primary School are surprised to see their seemingly ‘new’ teacher in girls’ dark green uniform dress.
Surprisingly this new teacher is carrying a black plastic bag, which appears to have notebooks. She walks towards Standard Eight classrooms and settles in one of the Standard Eight classroomS, ready to learn. Things become funny for the younger learners when the ‘madam’ introduces the then 29-year-old Enala Nguru as one of the new learners.
“The children laughed their lungs out. They said I was too big to be in their class. But this didn’t bother me that much. I knew what I wanted in life,” Nguru remembers.
He decision to go back to school came in due to numerous challenges she encountered in marriage. When she lost both parents in her teens, relations advised her to get married. She unknowingly became a third wife.
“I was just childish and short sighted. My parents left some properties and these relations were interested in getting them. That’s why they wanted me to get married,” she says.
Things turned sour after she realised that the man was already married to two other wives; but she had nowhere else to go.
The Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (2015-16), reveals that 46 percent of girls and women (like Nguru) get married before the age of 18.
A 2014 Catholic Education Commission in Malawi (Cecom) report shows that, between 2010 and 2013, more than 27,000 girls in Malawi dropped out of primary school to get married.
“Child marriage is one of the main barriers to education for young girls in Malawi. On average, half of all girls are married by their 18th birthday and nearly a quarter are married by the age of 15.Our girls are being unfairly denied their right to a future and we must take action,” reads the report in part.
Nguru had to cling on to the union because she could not meet her basic needs and had nowhere to go. In no time, Nguru mothered six children. She was, however, unhappy, oppressed and abused. The man also failed to provide for all the 16 children from the three wives.
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) website says violence is common in child marriages and loss of girlhood and health problems related to early pregnancy are not the only hazards confronting young brides.
Girls who marry before the age of 18 have a greater risk of becoming victims of intimate partner violence than those who marry at an older age. This is especially true when the age gap between the child bride and spouse is large, according to UNFPA.
“I went through a lot. I was not going to do my children justice if I didn’t find a way out. I thought it wise to go back to school, attain education and prepare a good future for my children. In this situation, I felt the children would grow up poor and remain poor in their entire lives,” says Nguru, adding that this was enough motivation for her to return to school.
She says initially young learners mocked her. But things changed after teachers explained to them why she was back in school at that age. They warned that whoever ridicules her would face disciplinary action.
“I had a healthy relationship with the younger learners. They even helped me with my school work on topics I didn’t understand in class. I was later selected to Chilumba Secondary School. The situation was the same when I just joined but things changed until I completed my form four,” says Nguru who passed with 36 points on her Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations.
Her determination encouraged other women to go back to school especially now that she has been working with several Non- Governmental Organisations and earning some income.
When Karonga-based Foundation for Community Support Services (Focus) heard that a mother of six had returned to school, they approached her and took over responsibility to pay for her school fees.
Chikondi Chilongo (also from Karonga) is another girl who fell into the trap of child marriage after her aunt traded her with blankets and Lobola money.
She got married to an older man against her will and the man turned against her six months into the marriage.
“He gave me no attention. He was busy with other women,” she says, adding that the worse came to the worst when he got home with another woman and told her in the face that she was his new wife.
“I was ashamed and did not understand what had happened to me. I couldn’t even go out of the house or eat for days. I couldn’t go back home either because my relations and brothers could not allow me to live there while I was pregnant,” says Chilongo who is the fourth-born and only daughter in a family of seven children.
Chilongo struggled but things did not work out for her. After giving birth, no relation was interested in paying school fees for her.
She sought advice from a community mother group in her area. Mother groups are a group of women from the community tasked with the responsibility of persuading girls to go to school. They are spread in communities across Malawi.
The members registered her to also benefit from a scholarship from Focus. She is now re-admitted in school at Paramount Secondary School in Karonga.
Chilongo and Nguru are a few brave women whose dream to amend their mistakes has been rekindled through community initiatives.
Child protection officer for Start Awareness Support Action (Sasa), Gloria Mwalwanda, says child marriages are a very common practice in the district and most girls end up being dumped— as was the case with Chikondi, while others end up having co-wives like Nguru.
“The saddest thing about this is the fact that parents or guardians of the girls are the ones perpetuating the practice. They want to benefit from Lobola and many other things the man provides to them,” she says.
Mwalwanda says her organisation has been working in collaboration with mother groups, traditional leaders, other NGOs and the police to rescue underage girls from marriages by re-enrolling them in school.
She says so far 225 underage girls have been rescued from marriages. There are 23 cases that are pending to be resorted at the police.
A (July 2015 to January 2017) report of the 6th cohort of Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) commissioners, 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.”
Girls not Brides website says Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world, with approximately one in two girls married by age 18.
But Malawi is trying everything possible to deal with child marriages. The country was the first in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region to pass a comprehensive Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations bill which includes the minimum marriage age at 18 years.
Last year, Sadc Parliamentary Forum (Sadc-PF) adopted the first ever model law on eradicating child marriage and protecting children already in Marriage. In February 2017, Malawi Parliament made a historic constitution amendment to fully outlaw child marriage. This amendment removes legal the loophole which has allowed children aged between 15 and18 to marry with parental consent.
Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS) of 2016 says child marriages have contributed to an increase in maternal and neonatal mortality in Malawi, lack of education, gender based violence and failure to access family planning.
“Adolescent mothers usually give birth to premature or low birth weight babies. Malawi has the highest premature birth rate in the world, with 18 per cent of all babies being born too early and 13 per cent with low birth weight,” reads part of the report.
Goal five of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (to which Malawi is a signatory) aims to achieve equality and empower all women and girls by 2030.
Girls not Brides says child marriage perpetuates a cycle of poverty by cutting short girls’ education, pushing them into early and repeated pregnancies and limiting their opportunities for employment.
Nguru says even though she has not secured a permanent job, she is already reaping the fruits of education as she has been working with NGOs in her area and once went to Malta to share her story at an international conference.
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