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Female traditional leaders vow to end child marriage

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By Joseph Scott:

More than 100 female chiefs and initiators of rite of passage ceremonies from eight districts in Malawi have vowed to fight early marriages by doing away with harmful cultural practices.

They made the pledge on Thursday in Dowa District during a meeting to explore the role of women leaders in the community in reducing early-pregnancy, child marriage and promotion of education of girls.

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Speaking during the meeting, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwanza from Salima said she has instituted by-laws in her area, banning child marriage and all practices that harm women and girls.

“I was married at 14 and didn’t have a chance to proceed with my education…I was introduced to work and responsibilities’ of an adult, which stole my childhood. The pain I felt that time is now motivating me to have girls in my area educated and get a better life,” Mwanza said.

She added that tackling popular but harmful traditions that affects girls requires grit as chances of backlash from the community and lower chiefs is inevitable. She stressed that most of her decisions went against popular will, but she had to stand her ground for the sake of protecting girls in her area.

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According to latest statistics, 47 percent of women in Malawi are married before the age of 18, which puts Malawi 12th in the world on early child marriages.

Girls forced into early marriage usually drop out of school and therefore cannot acquire the skills and knowledge to prepare them to become economically productive adults.

In Malawi, early marriage is one of the highest contributors of maternal deaths as 30 percent occur in adolescents. For those who are lucky to survive, they are likely to have medical complications such as fistula.

Irene Kaomba, wife to Senior Chief Kaomba agrees that time is ripe to end child marriage.

“We have had many problems emanating from early child marriage in Kasungu that’s why we have banned all sorts of initiation ceremonies.

“These ceremonies were feeding our girls wrong information that they are ready for sex or marriage and in the end they ended up in dysfunctional marriages or worse still dying because of complications,” she said.

She added that together with other chiefs, they are working hard to change the roles of initiation ceremony counsellors, which has seen many co-opted in mother groups and other foras that promote girl-child education.

“It wasn’t easy to end such age old traditions but we had to come up with some incentives such as trainings to make sure that the initiators understand the damage these practices were doing to our girls,” she said. “Now, they are the ones helping us to encourage parents to send their children to school.”

At the end of the meeting, the chiefs and chiefs’ wives came up with commitments they will take home to help fight child marriages.

UNFPA Representative, Young Hong implored the chiefs to jealously guard the rights of girls in their areas for a better Malawi. She said child marriage subjects girls to different types of gender and sexual violence, which not only robs them of their rights but also their innocence.

“My parents chose to send me to school and now I am independent and I can also help them.”

“Let’s encourage our girls to go to school. Early marriage robs them of their future and that of their children. Babies born from baby mothers will likely remain in poverty posing incredible challenges for Malawi,” Young said.

UNFPA has been working with religious and mother groups to identify and annul child marriage, and with local leaders and communities to equip girls and boys with knowledge and skills to reduce the risk of child marriage.

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