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How Marriam was cheated to be mother at 15

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Mariam Anafi was born and grew up in Mmanga Village, in the area of Traditional Authority Pemba in Salima. She became a mother at the age of 15 and was forced to drop out of primary school while in Standard Five, that was in 2014.

Having a child at a tender age and without any form of support from the baby’s father, Mariam has been relying on her mother for help.

Sharing her story Mariam narrated: “When I was at school, I used to hang around with friends who had boyfriends. Their boyfriends used to give them money. I didn’t have money not even food to eat at school. When I asked my friends for money they refused to share with me. Instead they encouraged me to get a boyfriend so he could be taking care of my needs.

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“I asked my friends what one does with a boyfriend, they explained to me and I got my own boyfriend. And almost immediately, I got pregnant. I told my mother, and she was very sad and angry but she took care of me till I gave birth,” said Mariam.

The man who impregnated Mariam migrated to South Africa after she had given birth. Ever since, he does not communicate or help her.

“My mother takes care of me and on top of that I rely on piece works for a living to supplement what my mother does for me,” she said.

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Underage pregnancies like that of Mariam and child marriages violate the rights of girls, including sexual and reproductive health rights and limit access to education.

Underage pregnancies and child marriages cause poverty, lack of life skills, sexual and gender based violence and inequality that girls experience every day.

It is for this reason that the newly enacted Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act (Marriage Act) set 18 as the minimum age for marriage in Malawi as a means to help stop the underage pregnancies and child marriages.

However, concerted efforts are needed to enforce this law to protect the rights of girls. This includes ensuring access to sexual reproductive health information and services, education, addressing harmful cultural beliefs and practices and tackling poverty.

One of the organisations that has taken up the matter to ensure the Marriage Act is enforced is Salima Aids Support Organisation (Saso)

Saso with support from Social Transformation and Empowerment Projects (Steps) of South Africa have teamed up for a participatory film project with a group of young people in Salima. The participatory film project has since documented Mariam’s untold story to be used as a tool to stimulate dialogue about underage pregnancy and child marriage, advocating for the rights of girls.

In the 14-minute participatory film, Mariam is sharing her own experience and challenges of being a teenage mother. She has also been trained to use the video camera to engage with peers, family and community, asking questions and encouraging underage mothers to go back to school.

Early this month, while launching the participatory film titled “A Mother at 15…Kukhala Mzimayi Uli Wachichepere” in Salima, Senior Chief Kalonga, who also features in the movie, said the problem of teenage pregnancy and girls getting married at teenage has been rampant not only in Salima but along the lakeshore districts of Nkhotakota, Nkhata Bay, Mangochi and Karonga among others.

He attributed the problem to high poverty levels and illiteracy rate.

“Overwhelmingly, child marriage practices occur among the poor where educational and employment opportunities for girls are limited or non-existent. Families often believe marrying off their daughters will protect her from premarital sex that may result in unintended pregnancies and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and HIV,” said Senior Chief Kalonga.

He said parents may believe that other families may be better able to provide for their daughters and in so doing they may seek alliances through marriage.

“Today because of HIV and AIDS, a lot of children have become orphans. As orphans they don’t have support, so they find help by getting into relationships. Within the relationships, they become pregnant. When pregnant other problems arise, because their bodies are undeveloped. Some die when giving birth. Others contract HIV and Aids,” he said.

Together with other chiefs, Senior Chief Kalonga said as custodians of culture, fathers and parents, they have put in place bylaws to help protect young people and also to help them get bursaries to combat illiteracy as more children would be able to go to school to learn.

Elaane Maane from Steps expressed hope that the documentary film of Mariam would be the voice of many other girls that are experiencing similar challenges, as the movie would be taken and shown to many youths across Malawi through different forums.

“I hope that Mariam gets the support that she needs to go back to school,” she said.

According to Chiyembekezo Chabvu, Saso Programme Manager, his organisation embarked on a participatory film project and went on to document Mariam story after observing that in Salima and along the lakeshore districts, a lot of girls are married before the age of 18 years than boys.

“We believe this is a violation of girl’s rights since teenage pregnancies in most cases have negative health consequences that include death. And on top of that, teen mothers, girls without education are less likely to send their children to school,” he said.

In most cases, said Chabvu, child marriages are happening because they bring money to the families in form of dowries or bride price.

But in actual sense, said Chabvu, child marriage impinges on girls’ reproductive rights, right to work, and right to choose.

“Girls are often separated from their families, drop out of school, become socially isolated and receive limited support. New brides come under intense pressure to become pregnant and often face risky pregnancies. Early childbearing is linked to maternal mortality and a debilitating condition known as obstetric fistula,” he said.

Girls face difficulties in abstaining from sexual intercourse, demanding condom use, and keeping husbands monogamous.

Saso identified six stories for teen mothers for documentation. The identified and documented stories were sent to Steps for technical and financial support. Mariam story was selected for film shooting.

Written consent was granted from Mariam, her parents and Group Village Headman Mmanga to shoot the film.

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