Eliza Patrick, 19, was excited about the visit to her village recently by a high-level delegation comprising Brazilian Ambassador to Malawi, Artur Oliveira, South African High Commissioner to Malawi, Prince Ahlangene Sigcau, and his Indian counterpart, Anurag Bhushan.
The embassies of the three countries are supporting the India, Brazil and South Africa (Ibsa) project entitled ‘Eliminating child marriages in Malawi and Zambia’.
Locally, the project is being implemented in Traditional Authorities (T/As) Kachindamoto in Dedza and Mwanza in Salima by the Malawi Girl Guides Association (Magga) and Malawi Interfaith Association (MIAA) through the support of UN Women.
Eliza is one of the child marriage survivors receiving support from the Ibsa project in T/A Mwanza in Salima.
She said the visit of the high level delegation to the area presented her a rare opportunity to outline the challenges that young girls face after being withdrawn from marriages.
“I am happy that you have come here in person. I wish to remind you that it is poverty that drove us into child marriages. Yet, when we have been withdrawn from marriages, there are no interventions to address what drove us into those marriages,” Eliza told the envoys.
Malawi has adopted major legislative and policy reforms in women’s human rights including a Gender Equality Act in 2013 that promotes gender equality in the areas of education and reproductive health.
The government also amended the Penal Code Act in 2011 to raise the age of sexual consent from 13 to 16 years.
The laws have important protections for girls and women that prohibit forced marriage, criminalise the abduction of girls under 16 and prohibit discrimination against women and girls. In addition, Parliament in October 2013 passed the Education Bill, making education universal and compulsory for all – a big advancement for girls’ access to education.
Many girls also benefit from a “readmission” policy that allows girls who become pregnant while in school or who drop out due to marriage to continue with school.
But Eliza observed that the government and its development partners have not been able to come up with sustainable programmes for supporting girls who have been withdrawn from marriages.
“Merely withdrawing girls from marriages is not enough. They will be forced back into the same trap if they are not provided with necessary support to enable them concentrate on their education,” she narrated.
Charity Mtambo, a 21-year-old child marriage survivor Senior Chief Kachindamoto in Dedza, disclosed that many girls find it difficult to return to school after marriage because of lack of money for school fees, lack of child care, unavailability of flexible school programmes or adult classes, and the need to do household chores.
Mtambo said it would be a mission in futility for the government and its development partners to merely dissolve child marriages without unshackling them from their abject poverty.
A visibly touched ambassador Oliveira agreed with the girls. He said it is against this background that the Ibsa project incorporated a number of extra curricula interventions to empower the child marriage survivors with skills to enable them gain economic independence.
He disclosed that through UN Women, they are supporting their implementing partners in the two districts to strengthen safe spaces for girls and child marriage survivors in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
UN Women has provided scholarships to 750 girls and young women in Dedza and Salima in an effort to keep child marriage survivors in school and to complete their education.
In addition 1,000 girls are part of the virtual skills school project that is implemented in the districts with support from the Scottish government.
UN Women has also donated a bicycle to each of the 750 girls and young women to ease mobility challenges they cited as a contributing factor to their dropping out of school.
“Both the scholarships and bicycles have been provided through the ‘Eliminating child marriages project’, which is a pilot project being funded by the Indian, Brazilian and South African, Ibsa/Facility,” said Oliveira.
Sigcau said he would be writing his government to consider providing more financial support to Malawi.
“I have no reason to deny you that support having seen what you are doing to eliminate child marriages in collaboration with local leaders,” said Sigcau.
UN Women Representative Clara Anyangwe, disclosed that the project is assisting the child marriage survivors to access education through the bursaries programme and skills development opportunities complimented under the We-learn programme, which is also being implemented in this area.
Anyangwe said recognising the need to build the capacity of chiefs in supporting girls to remain in school and withdraw others from child marriages, the project has supported the creation of a community dialogue and safe spaces in the two districts.
“Traditional leaders in Malawi have played a critical role in championing the agenda of ending child marriages through Gewe [Girls Education and Women Empowerment] and Ending Child Marriage Projects, which are receiving funding from UN and other development partners,” she said.
Anyangwe emphasised that the Ibsa Ending Child Marriages Pilot project is building on the foundation set by other stakeholders and development partners in the district and at the national level.
She said the skills development component is critical to the empowerment of young women and girls in Dedza to stay out of marriages, which will build on the back to school programme implemented by both chiefs.
She said UN Women is shocked with recent revelations that the country has registered a steady increase in the number of unwanted and unplanned teenage pregnancies and child marriages in the few months that schools have been closed over coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak.
However, Anyangwe stated that this does not mean that Covid-19 has caused teenage pregnancies, child marriage or violence against women and girls but that it has exacerbated the situation in light of school closures.
“It has just brought these to the fore, away from the shadows, into the spotlight. I would therefore like to urge all of us to strengthen our efforts in protecting the girl child from teen pregnancies and early, forced and child marriages through enhanced coordination among district and community stakeholders,” Anyangwe said.
On the other hand, Kachindamoto said the bursaries, bicycles and safe spaces will go a long way in motivating the girl child to remain in school and traditional leaders to work hard in addressing child marriages and early teen pregnancies in the Dedza.
In his remarks, Member of Parliament for Dedza East, Patrick Bandawe, pleaded with the girls and young women to jealously guard their scholarships and bicycles against abuse.
“These bicycles and bursaries have been provided to enable you go and return from school in good time. Don’t use them for taxi services. You will demotivate the donors,” Bandawe said.