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Early marriages: The cog in our eyes

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Young people— persons aged between 10 and 24 years—constitute more than one-third of Malawi’s total population.

Today’s young people have diverse experiences, given the many political, economic, social and cultural realities they face in their communities.

Young people face many reproductive health challenges, which include sexually transmitted infections such as HIV and Aids, teenage pregnancy, unsafe abortion, high school dropout rates and harmful practices such as early marriages and female genital mutilation.

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These challenges have triggered a 38 percent increase in cases of teen pregnancy in Mchinji District.

A typical example is Traditional Authority (T/A) Dambe’s area where a Standard Five boy has impregnated a fellow learner at Tsekwe Full Primary School in the district.

The two come from Kapundu Village, Group Village Head Kapenya, T/A Dambe, in the district.

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The boy is 15 and the girl is 12.

Tsekwe Full Primary School Head Teacher, Gilbert Chibwe, and Mother Group Chairperson Evelyn James confirmed the development.

Chibwe says the girl started absconding classes during the first days of the second term but could not give plausible reasons for her failure.

Alarmed, Mother Group members, who specialise in attending to the needs of girls in schools, started tracing the girl.

That is how they discovered that the girl was pregnant.

James and the women who followed up on the girl were disappointed.

“The girl admitted that she had been having unprotected sex with the girl and that this happened more than once,” James says.

Cases like these have spurred traditional, religious, political and other leaders into action. They have agreed to share responsibilities in monitoring the young girl until she gives birth.

Their interest? “We want her to go back to school,” James says.

To this end, James and all people who care about education have dismissed, outright and rudely, the idea to let the girl marry the boy. That would be killing two prospects with one damaging blow.

While people of good will, people such as James and Chibwe, continue to champion the rights of the girl-child, the sad part is that cases of pregnancy continue to skyrocket.

For example, early this year, a 14-year-old boy from T/A Mlonyeni in the district impregnated a 12-year-old girl, a development that sparked debate on whether the campaign to end cases of child marriage and early pregnancies is bearing fruit.

In the end, people begin to question the effectiveness of youth-friendly health services. The question, in this case, is whether such services are accessible to young people.

Mchinji District Hospital Youth Friendly Health Coordinator, Vitumbiko Mhango, says they face challenges in terms of reaching out to youths of all ages; hence, the increase in cases of teenage pregnancy.

Mhango admits that the 38 percent increase in the rate of teenage pregnancies is a smack in the face of efforts being made to keep the girl-child in school.

But, as Mhango says, the war is not lost. The government has been promoting sexual reproductive health services in order to come to the bottom of the issue.

“We, as the government, are doing our best to reach out to as many youths as possible,” Mhango says.

This is not surprising as the National Youth Friendly Health Services YFHS Strategy promotes the provision of family planning services to adolescents. The question still remains where is government missing?

In order to meet the goals of the strategy, though, there is need to adopt a multi-sectoral approach.

“The YFHS programme, as clearly outlined in the Youth Friendly Health Services Strategy (2015-2020), is a multi-sectoral initiative tackling elements beyond the health system. Such elements include addressing gender inequalities and harmful social norms, providing age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education early, providing skills and space for meaningful youth participation and skills building,” Mhango says.

She further says the strategy recognises early, middle and late adolescent but provides no guidance on specific approaches for each age group; “hence, we use one cap-fits-all approaches in providing services to youths”.

Maybe it is time to set clear lines.

What is for certain, however, is that the role of youths in national development is recognised by countries all over the world, including the United States (US).

That is why, for example, on January 22, 2014, US Charge d’affaires to Malawi Michael Gonzales hosted a reception to highlight the roles of youth leadership, volunteerism and community service in contributing to national development.

The guest of honour was Barbara Bush, Chief Executive Officer of Global Health Corps.

Barbara Bush, co-founder of the Global Health Corps and daughter of former US president George W Bush, was in Malawi as part of a visit to East and Southern Africa to participate in mid-year fellow retreats.

During her visit to Malawi, Bush highlighted the importance of youth leadership in achieving positive change in global health.

Speaking during the reception, Gonzales said 65 percent of Malawi’s population is under the age of 30 years, further observing that, while young people bring huge potential to build a prosperous future, they are, too often, unemployed or idle and their potential is wasted.

“We encourage all young men and women to find ways that they can contribute to society through volunteering or community service. Those who can may join the ranks of the thousands of volunteers in a structured programme such as GHC, VSO or Peace Corps.

“While I salute those who dedicate a significant period of their lives to volunteerism, I also understand that not everyone can. But everyone can contribute some of their time to support local communities by teaching at secondary schools, volunteering at clinics, playing with kids in orphanages, leading English clubs, or just reading to neighborhood children,” Bush says.

Principal Secretary for the Ministry of Youth, Joseph Mwandidya, is quoted as saying: “It is important that young people should embrace the spirit of volunteerism because government cannot do everything on its own. The government depends on the people.”

Maybe, as the government continues to rely on youths, the youth can do themselves a favour by concentrating on education.

At least for now.

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