At 17, Maria has already spent seven months in an unhappy marriage with a 19-year-young man.
The long distance between her home and school pushed her into the union before she even attained the age at which someone can legally marry.
The first school she had been going to did not have senior classes, so she had to shift to another one several kilometres away.
“I used to leave home around 5am and arrived at school two hours later. My legs could swell after covering the long distance,” Maria, from a remote village in Mzimba, says.
Rivers which she used to cross to access her school posed great danger during the rainy season.
Eventually, the girl dropped out of school towards the end of 2019 while in Standard Seven.
Hard to reach from its nearest trading centre, Maria’s village had only a junior primary school constructed by the community as its standing public structure.
The school caters for some 217 learners handled by three teachers only.
Its Head teacher, Patrick Banda, feels the higher enrollment of girls—at 119—is evidence that they are eager to remain in school.
“The girls do quite well until they reach Standard Six when they have to start thinking of joining other schools.
“Two choices are on their hands: either they continue with their education at faraway schools or drop out altogether. Very few continue as compared to boys,” Banda discloses.
Apart from long distances to school, young people in Maria’s area further have problems accessing sexual and reproductive health services (SRHS).
There is no clinic nearby.
Chairperson of a mother group in the area, Mary Yilinda, says failure by girls to access contraceptives is proving costly.
She says a 15-year-old girl fell pregnant last year during a school holiday induced by the Covid pandemic.
Yilinda believes the girl would not have got herself in “such trouble” if she had accessed contraceptives.
“Having a full primary school and a secondary school will be a great relief. We also need a clinic where young people can access SRHS,” she says.
The mother group is striving to ensure girls remain in school, by providing them with support such as that of reusable sanitary pads.
“At least, those who remain in school should not miss lessons because of menstruation,” Yilinda states.
Senior Health Surveillance Assistant at Luvwere Health Centre, Osman Nkosi, confirms that only about 40 in every 100 people in its catchment area of at least 6,000 access SRH services at the facility.
Maria’s village relies on this clinic which is outside the recommended eight-kilometre radius.
“Some young people [from Maria’s village] cover 10 kilometres to and from the health centre. The distance discourages them from accessing SRHS,” Nkosi explains.
He adds that the fact that only one block makes up the health centre means privacy is a problem,
It is one of the issues highlighted in the Youth Friendly Health Services Strategy which Malawi started implementing in 2007.
And for some communities, including Maria’s, a non-governmental organisation Gender Governance Institute (GGI) has secured K12 million from Tilitonse Foundation to improve access to youth friendly health services in areas difficult to reach.
About Maria’s village, GGI Executive Director Tiwonge Kayira says: “The area was selected because it is excluded in terms of development initiatives—no good roads, secondary schools and clinics; not even a police unit.”
Kayira adds that the one-year project, which runs from February 1, 2021 to January 31, 2022, will leverage on strengthening partnership building with relevant stakeholders.
She says the initiative targets traditional leaders, faith leaders and community opinion leaders by engaging them to brainstorm on local solutions that would put to an end child marriages and early pregnancies and improve access to SRHS in rural settings.
A chief who oversees one of the targeted areas, Bonwell Moyo, says they will not relent in advocating increased uptake of SHRS among young people.
Malawi has an overwhelmingly large sub-population of youth, with one out of three between the ages of 10 and 24 years.
But according to the National Youth Friendly Health Services Strategy for 2015-2020, early sexual debut continues to persist with 20.3 percent boys and 5.3 percent girls having sex by the age of 10.