The thought of marrying at the tender age of 15 years never crossed Edna’s mind.
Born in a family of nine, it did not even cross her mind that, once she married at 15, the marriage would not even last for 15 days.
The fresh-faced, plump and dark-skinned Edna recounts being in a group of three girls when she was in Standard Five.
“My friends used to come to school loaded with cash. They could, therefore, buy assorted foodstuffs. I envied them. One day, I asked my friends to tell me where they were getting the money and I was introduced to a sexual relationship,” Edna says, downcast.
Edna says she got herself a boyfriend and, sooner than later, discovered that she was pregnant.
“I have never been more afraid than the day I realised that I was pregnant. I did not know how I would break the news to my mother, let alone my father,” she adds.
As expected, her mother got furious when she got the news that Edna was pregnant.
Her mother told her to marry the boy responsible for the pregnancy. She based her decision on levels of poverty in the family.
Edna’s mother, Enifa Kasungu, argues that the daughter had put herself in a precarious position.
“If she got pregnant, it simply means she was old enough to marry. Most of my children have failed to meet their education goals. My first-born daughter did the same but, after negotiations, she came back home with the granddaughter.
“Initially, I felt that I could not manage to raise her simultaneously with her son because I was already struggling to raise money for my family,” she says.
Edna’s father, Adam, says it was one difficult endeavour to convince his wife to drop the idea of marrying off their daughter.
“I felt pain when I got the news that my daughter was pregnant. I was immediately summoned by our chief to explain why I allowed my daughter to get pregnant. I appeared before the Traditional Authority (T/A) [Bwananyambi] because, at that point in time, my wife wanted Edna to marry. I was ordered to pay K5,000 for letting my daughter drop out of school and another K10,000 fine was imposed on me for accommodating the suggestion of marrying Edna off. I pleaded with the T/A and we settled for the idea that the child should be sent back to school,” Adam says.
So, before Edna went back to school, she had a 15-day stint in marriage.
“Life was unbearable. Basic needs such as soap were in short supply. The few days I spent in that house were more painful than I could ever imagine.
“Then, one day, my father came to the house in the company of our village head. I then leant that the marriage had been dissolved. I was ordered to go back to my parents’ house. I felt relieved but I knew I would be a burden on my parents’ shoulders. But, then, I had no choice,” Edna says.
Weeks later, Edna delivered.
“When I came back from the hospital I felt unwell and I went back to the hospital. I remembered that time my father wept on my bedside. I had tormented his life. He needed money as I needed extra blood. I got better and, six months later, went back to school,” she says.
Her child turns four this year and is in nursery school.
Kasungu says he will do everything to support Edna’s dream of becoming a nurse.
Edna’s story is not different from that of 20-year-old Aisha Ndege, who is from Nkumba Village, T/A Bwananyambi in Mangochi District.
Aisha, now in Form Two at Nkumba Community Day Secondary School, got pregnant when she was in Standard Eight. She was aged 15 years at the time.
She had been married for a year when Village Head Nkumba issued a directive that every girl who dropped out of school for the warm embrace of marriage be reinstated in school.
“When I got a report of the directive, I and my husband fled to another village in the hope that we would not be followed. Then I heard that the chief was on my mother’s neck. My mother was told to pay a fine for allowing me to drop out of school. After discussions, I withdrew from the marriage and got back to school. I am now in Form Two,” she says.
In both cases, the girls fell pregnant at the age of 15 years.
In both cases, again, poverty acted as the big hand that pushed them into the gaping hole of marriage.
Bwananyambi, who never went to school, says poverty has been one of the factors, a setback almost, in the fight against child marriages since the start of the initiative to bring girls back in school in 2010.
She says most parents argue that, due to scarcity of resources, they cannot to generate funds for school fees.
With that in mind, Bwananyambi instituted the ‘Bwananyambi Education Fund’, a resource envelope for needy students who are able to, through it, source funds for fees.
“We, chiefs, contribute a little something monthly. There is a committee for resource mobilisation and, again, the money I collect through fines imposed on those who defy directives is directed into the fund,” Bwananyambi says.
She says, currently, 26 girls are in school, courtesy of the fund, which spends about K350,000 yearly on the same.
“I am delighted to mention here that our greatest achievement is that we have managed to pay school fees for girls who are realising their education goals. One student is at Mzuzu University as I am speaking. She is the first girl in this area to reach tertiary education level,” Bwananyambi says.
In the 2017/18 academic year, over 18 adolescent girls have returned to school in Bwananyambi’s area. These girls were rescued from the jaws of marriage.
Bwananyambi suggests that the silent noise on child marriages may die down permanent once the marriage age is revised from 18 years to 21.
Mangochi Social Welfare Officer, Macleod Mphande, cites four factors that, in his view, are fuelling cases of child marriages.
“You might be aware that most youthful men here in Mangochi earn a living by trekking to South Africa. When they come back from South Africa, they do not go for their age-mates; they go for girls, who end up getting pregnant. The other factor is culture. Girls here go for initiation ceremonies at a tender age. When they come back from the initiation camps, they feel that they are old enough to start sexual relationships which eventually drive them into marriage,” Mphande says.
Mphande further notes that most families in the district are headed by women due to factors such as inter-marriage. Because of that, most families are poor and it is easy for girls in those afflicted families to find the aroma of marriage too strong to resist.
“You will find that some girls from resource-poor families have no interest in school due to lack of resources. However, we have a committee, at town level, which works hand in hand with traditional leaders, community-based organisations and community policing members to combat the vice. Unicef [United Nations Children’s Fund] funds us to sensitise people to how we can protect our children. We also established community victim support units in all the T/As in Mangochi and the strategy seems to be working,” he says.
Unicef Communication Officer, Naomi Kalemba, says, in coming to the rescue of community members who are willing to keep the girl-child in school, they are promoting sustainable development in Malawi.
Kalemba says, among other things, they are working in the areas of sensitisation and capacity-building. They do this by working with local communities including traditional leaders, gatekeepers and guardians.
The message is simple: There is no sustainable development when the girl-child is left behind.
“We, as Unicef, are building the capacity of mother groups. We are working through community structures such as community victim support units and children’s corners. Apart from this, Unicef is also supporting Care for Child Development programmes which build the capacity of parents by imparting parenting skills in them,” Kalemba says.
All these programmes are like paths that lead to one highway, namely school.
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