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Climate change sends girls into early marriages

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It was against her will.

Her father did not want her to suffer, or so he thought, in his absence as he was migrating to Mozambique in search for greener pastures.

The effects of climate change started being experienced on a larger scale in Nayuchi, a remote part of the Machinga district located in the border with Mozambique.

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That was in 2014.

Linda Charles, not her real name, was 12 then. Her family started experiencing dwindling income due to the drying up of Lake Chilwa. The declining levels of the lake also led to the dwindling of fishing grounds, leaving fishermen like Linda’s father desperate.

The man had no other sources of generating income to be able to look after his family. Left without any option it became a common occurrence for the family to sleep on an empty stomach as the man of the house would go days without any significant fish catch.

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The effects were so multiple, some of them away from the fishing grounds. Crops failed, income generating activities upland brought little and families went perpetually food insecure.

Linda’s parents no longer had the money to send her to school. She was a hard working student who wanted to see her dream of becoming a nurse materialise.

However, like many young girls in the district, she faced a different future: marriage at 12, in a union arranged by her parents. The parents saw her marriage as part of the solution to the social economic problems the family was going through.

On our visit to the area recently, her father was still in Mozambique while her mother had left to the nearby village to attend a funeral.

But we had an audience with Group Village Headman Mkisa in Sub-Traditional Authority Mchinguza.

Mkisa said Linda’s marriage went against the bylaws set by the people themselves in the area prohibiting young girls under the age of 18 to marry.

“I did not hesitate to break up the marriage,” said Mkisa.

The family was summoned and charged to pay a fine of K10, 000 for breaking the laws. But the girl was already one month pregnant.

Linda who now has a one-year-old baby boy is back to school. Her hopes of becoming a nurse seem to be back on track.

And despite her age, she is among young mothers in the area who are concerned with the sexual reproductive health status of her peers in the community.

Linda joined her friend Sala Lapken aged 14 who also faced a similar situation. These girls are working in the community of Nayuchi with Nakatope Youth Club on voluntary basis to raise awareness on family planning and reproductive health in a bid to tackle unintended pregnancies.

As peer educators, they are convinced that raising awareness adequately on the benefits of family planning to the adolescents and the whole community in Nayuchi could greatly reduce teenage pregnancies, HIV incidence and encourage girl child education.

“If you are pregnant at that age that is an indication that you could possibly contract HIV and even die. Those of us who are teen mothers teamed up to fight against early pregnancies, early marriages and school dropout,” said Linda.

Right now things have changed a lot in this community, observes Salah, adding: “We are seeing many adolescent’ girls accessing various family planning methods, cases of teenage pregnancies are also dropping because of our awareness campaign.”

She said it is important that girls continue investing in education.

“I have seen some girls who dropped out of school to get married and got pregnant; some of those girls are now back in school.

“This awareness helps a lot in keeping girls in school and it is critical in improving adolescent sexual reproductive health and rights,” she said.

The two teen mothers did not think of returning to school after their marriages were dissolved. They only did so courtesy of the influence of Youth Response for Social Change (YRSC) and traditional leaders who agreed to implement the by-laws with support from Tilitonse Fund.

Now Linda and Salah are back in primary school and secondary school respectively after delivering their babies in June and July 2015.

YRSC believes that inequality restrains the progress of humanity by placing the weight of the world on girls’ shoulders.

“With educated girls we can lift the world, and with their hands we can transform it into something beautiful,” said YRSC Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Tiyamike Chipyola.

She said with more than 80 percent of Malawians living in rural areas and most of them relying on agriculture for their livelihood, families whose survival is at risk hardly consider the potential of girls in school.

Chipyola said most girls experience sexual harassment and assault from male peers and teachers as early as standard five.

“Cultural practices often push girls into early, isolated, and abusive marriages, followed by complications in childbearing and a vulnerability to illness especially HIV and Aids. Ultimately, the cycle of poverty is perpetuated down each generation,” she observed.

As the majority of girls drop out of school after receiving free primary education, they are often deemed unworthy of financial support, a view clearly influenced by gender bias.

With a larger percentage of Malawians living below the poverty level, education is hardly seen as a priority, especially not for girls.

And when climate change impacts increase the frequency and magnitude of disasters, every additional shock can push people deeper into a cycle of poverty out of which it is hard to escape.

This is the experience of the community in Nayuchi. Here, people have lost their source of livelihood through fishing following the drying up of Lake Chilwa.

Mkisa said on this account, the response the community has given to the girls such as Linda and Salah is not enough. There is need to find ways to curb the effects of climate change and ensure that families have a source of income –which would eventually help save girls from early marriages and pregnancies.

He said it would be important for government to aid the most affected families through irrigated agriculture, for instance. Such an intervention, said Mkisa, would ease the impacts of climate change on households.

From the look of things, girls like Linda and Salah are only a small case of what is a big problem in communities around the lake.

A previous Lake Chilwa Water Monitoring report by the World Fish Centre says the lake supports the livelihood of over 1.5 million people in the basin covering the districts of Phalombe, Machinga and Zomba through agricultural and natural goods.

It is the country’s second largest lake and accounts for 20 percent of all fish caught in Malawi and it contributes over $21 million to the country’s economy, according to environmental studies.

The lake has dried up 9 times in the past 100 years.

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