Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve,” 1 Peter 5: 2 [new international version bible].
In life, there are special days that one does not want to miss. In recent times, birthday celebrations have gained momentum. Most uptown women cannot afford to mess around with this day. Exchanging marriage vows is yet another day.
Two years ago, Esnart Thamangani of Ntcheu District was pregnant and, being a Catholic faithful together with her fiancé Symon Chakudza, initiated the process of tying the knot.
Father Lawrence Kadzingo of Ntcheu Catholic Parish was approached tie the two together, until death would separate them, in holy matrimony.
However, the marriage was cancelled after it emerged that Esnart was aged only 16 years, against the church’s doctrine as well as the laws of Malawi.
For Esnart, this was an insult as she would no longer be a member of the church’s choir for she would have a baby outside marriage. She could not stomach the idea that the marriage would be cancelled.
Of course, the urge to marry was fuelled by her parents, especially her father, who swore never to keep her in their house since she had become a disgrace.
Father Kadzingo remembers the day the love-birds appeared before him: “I was so inquisitive on the age, especially that of the girl. She looked very young despite being pregnant. I convinced the couple not to get married. I encouraged the girl to, after delivering the baby, return to school. Lucky enough, they understood and now the girl is in Form Four,”
Esnart sat this year’s Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations. This is her second go, after performing poorly in 2015 examinations, which she sat while two months pregnant.
For her trouble in 2015, she chalked 37 points.
“I started dating my classmate while in Form One. We got carried away with the relationship in 2015, when we were both in Form Four, and I got pregnant. I kept the pregnancy issue close to my chest until I finished sitting examinations. I had no option but to get married as per Ngoni culture. My boyfriend was ready to marry me and we agreed to initiate the process at our church,” Esnart says.
Esnart has six siblings.
Felix Thamangani is the father of Esnart and confesses that he suspected that his wife knew about her daughter’s relationship but kept quiet.
“I was just hearing, from the grapevine, that my daughter was dating a fellow student at the school she was learning. I remember that, at some point, I met the two chatting. I was not pleased and fought against the man. Later on, I heard that Esnart was pregnant. It was frustrating looking at how I struggled to generate money for her school fees,”
He said they were paying K9, 000 per term.
“In the first place I was mad at my wife for letting this to happen. After sometime we both pushed for the marriage of the two kids. However, while in that process, Father Kadzingo, the parish priest, came and counselled us [the family] on the importance of allowing the daughter to get back to school after delivering the child,” Felix says.
On the contrary, the wife, Rhoda, claims that she never knew that her daughter had a boyfriend until she got pregnant.
“When I learnt that she [Esnart] was pregnant, I was so upset that I didn’t want to see her at our home because we had spent a lot of money on her education. So, I simply wanted her to be married off and forget about it.
“However, I reversed the decision after being counselled by the church on the need to support her in her education endeavours. It’s my hope that she finishes school to become a nurse,” says Rhoda, who is, so far, impressed with her daughter’s performance in class.
Both Felix and Rhoda say they quickly accepted to support Esnart and her son, Gracious, after realising that, at 16 years, she was still young.
They add that the church promised to offer necessary support.
Father Kadzingo says Esnart is one of the beneficiaries of Za Tonse Programme, which is premised on ending cases of child marriage.
Catholic Health Commission is championing the programme and targets the youth, especially girls, to stay in school up to the age of 25 years.
“We strive to empower the girl-child to be self-reliant in the future. Esnart is one the success stories of the programme. Some girls have been withdrawn from marriages and are back to school. However, in some cases we fail to live to our dreams due to culture,” he says.
He says, in some instances, some Christians have denounced their faith from the Catholic Church to other denominations when quizzed on marriage age and other issues relating to child marriages.
“We can’t force them [the community] on the decision and as a result some go ahead with their traditional marriages. But the challenge is that these child marriages destroy their future in education and expose the girls to reproductive health risks such as fistula. They also result in increased population considering that girls start bearing children at a tender age,” Father Kadzingo says.
About 20 kilometres south of Ntcheu Boma is Msipe, where community education structures are championing Back to School Project.
The project pioneered by the same Catholic Church administrative branch—Catholic Health Commission— has since 2015 managed to send back to school 35 children, of which 15 are girls and 20 are boys.
Using youth structures set up by Msipe Catholic Parish, they engage traditional leaders and the community through star circle to establish challenges forcing children to drop out of school.
Father Joseph Billiat is the youth chaplain at Msipe Parish and hails such structures for promoting education and ensuring that girls go and remain in school.
“During the past two years, for example, Msipe primary school enrolled back eight children who had dropped out [of school] due to various reasons including poverty, peer pressure and Ngoni culture that forces pregnant girls to be married off. The youth groups are able to look at these challenges and find viable solutions to overcome them,” Father Billiat says.
Gertrude Masiku is one of the girls who was taken back to school courtesy of one of the youth groups.
The challenge of lack of basic needs forced her out of school. Her mother would not object as she was also struggling in life. She was 14 years old and was in Standard Seven. She eventually got pregnant.
“I dropped out of school and started searching for basic needs such as clothes, soap, and learning materials. I found a man who promised to provide for me the necessities. In the course of this, I got pregnant but the man runway. I struggled with life and, for about two years, I was home nursing the baby.
“I came back to school when members of a youth club in our community visited me. I have a four-year-old child and I am now back to school in Standard Eight with a hope to be a nurse in future,” says Gertrude from Zidana Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kwataine in Ntcheu District.
Msipe Primary School Head Teacher, Edward Chiwaula, says it is encouraging that, just like Gertrude, almost all the children that once dropped out of school are performing well in class.
Chiwaula attributes this to, among other reasons, a conducive learning environment for learners who have been re-enrolled.
“Whenever we have re-enrolled a learner, we make sure that we explain to all the learners about the importance of respecting one another, regardless of their different backgrounds. So, we assist the children not to be engaged in issues of stigma and discrimination but to, rather, cooperate and help one another,” Chiwaula says.
He also says they offer special lessons to those that have returned to school to bridge the gap between them and those who had uninterrupted education.
“Last year, four passed Swell and are at Madzanje Community Day Secondary School,” Chiwaula says.
Mother to Gertrude attests that her daughter is doing well in class and shows signs of maturity.
The mother, Ivy Chautsi, says she advises her to work hard in class for her to be a productive citizen in the future.
“I want to see her finish her education and get a good job. That way, she will be independent and also help me in buying some basic needs for the family,” Chautsi says.
But how are local leaders supporting efforts aimed at educating girls?
Village Head Nzewe under T/A Kwataine in Ntcheu says they instituted by-laws to nip child marriage cases in the bud. She does this by ensuring that all children below the age of 18 years attain their education.
“Girls that are found pregnant are fined K2, 500 to serve as a lesson to them and deter others. Uncles that want to marry off their pregnant nieces are sent back home and the marriage is cancelled despite all the processes such as chabwalo (bride price). In the past, we used to register about eight cases of pregnancy per year but such cases have declined,” Nzewe says.
Like Za Tonse Project, the Back to School campaign is supporting children with learning materials and fees, among other forms of assistance, for them to meet their education goals.
While the Catholic Church is doing its part, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) is, on the other hand, working in three districts of Dedza, Ntcheu and Mangochi, under a Joint Programme for Girls Education (JPGE).
Unicef Communications Officer, Naomi Kalemba, says about 1,400 girls have been re-admitted in school over the three-year duration of the project’s first phase.
Quoting the Book of Peter (1) chapter 5 verse 2—what remains is for the community to sustain these projects for better results.
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