In Dambo Village, Tradition Authority (T/A) Mankhambira, 16-year-old Constance is nursing a three-month-old pregnancy.
She can hardly recall the details of the man who impregnated her, when she was in Standard Seven at Mulori Primary School.
“It was not even a serious affair. We had known each other for a few days when we slept together. I got pregnant. Then I heard that he had left for South Africa,” Constance recalls.
The expectant girl now imagines that if she had spent time interacting with her age-mates, she would not have fallen pregnant.
But, still, she has not fully lost hope.
“After I give birth, I plan to return to school. I have met girls that have inspired me not to look back but to be ambitious. Even if the man comes back from wherever he is, I am not getting into marriage before I get a good qualification for self-sustainability,” Constance states with conviction.
Cases of girls falling pregnant before their 18th birthday are now rare in the lakeshore district where they frequently interact in clubs and inspire each other on how they can avoid early marriages and pregnancies.
Priscilla Nkhoma is 17 years old, from Chipolopolo Village, T/A Zilakoma in the district. She admits that several men approach her for sexual relationships or marriage.
The Form Three learner at Kapanda Community Day Secondary School says after the closure of schools as a preventive measure against Covid-19 in March, more men continued to pester her into sexual relationships.
“I t appears, because men were seeing us around frequently, they thought it was an opportunity to coax us into relationships. I had to ward them off knowing that I have a future to protect,” Priscilla states.
She adds that as girls grow, in her location, it has been traditional that they should find suitors or get into sexual relationships when they are “in their prime”.
“When a girl is growing up, for instance, people around her begin to gossip about why she is not getting married. In my case, I have faced such challenges but the inspiration I get from friends and peer educators has kept me strong. I cannot give in to an early marriage or pregnancy,” Priscilla says.
In the area of Group Village Head Gulugulu in the same district, a girl’s club called Lusungu has an inspiring story.
Some members Zione Chiya, Esther Chirwa, Esnart Banda, Sarah Njikho and Mariam Milanzie are saving and lending each other money to fortify themselves from the lure of money from men who seek to buy sex from the girls.
“Almost everybody in the group is running a small business to keep ourselves going. I sell washing powder soap. I order from Mzuzu City and sell it in the village. I have K81,000 as my capital. The money I make is enough to buy clothes and sanitary pads and so no man can deceive me,” Sarah says.
She adds that within the group, there are girls who gave birth at young ages but have found the courage to keep pushing due to the inspirations members share.
Local rulers are also assisting the young girls by appealing to the government and other institutions to make contraceptives readily available to the youths so that they do not fall pregnant while in school.
Group Village Head Kahinja and Gulugulu in T/A Fulakamalaza state that there is a significant drop in the number of girls dropping out of school after falling pregnant.
“We were happy that these contraceptives were introduced to our area because our youth can now protect themselves from early marriages. As chiefs, we also introduced by-laws to make sure that those that perpetrate child marriages are taken to task,” GVH Kahinja says.
All this is possible through a project dubbed ‘Marriage no child’s play’ that Girls Empowerment Network (Genet) is implementing in Nkhata Bay with financial support from Simavi of Netherlands through More than Brides Alliance.
The project, which kicked off in 2016 and winds up this year, targets 53 villages from T/As Mankhambira, Fukamapiri and Fukamalaza where over 26 girls’ clubs have since been formed. It has already reached out to about 970 girls.
Genet Field Officer, Daniel Simbeye, says comparatively few cases of early marriages and teenage pregnancies have been recorded in the five months when schools were closed.
He attributes the development to the work of the girls’ clubs and structures such as the child-protection committees, parent facilitators, peer educators, male champions and traditional leaders.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has not been an issue for us because our girls are empowered. We have few cases of child marriages because the structures we put up to fight the same are working even in the midst of the pandemic,” Simbeye says.
Nkhata Bay District Social Welfare Officer, Mcfence Chagomelana, waxes lyrical about the impact of the work of organisations such as Genet which he says are helping in reducing cases of early marriages in the lakeshore district.
Chagomelana reveals that, for instance, in the three T/A’s where Genet is working, cases of child marriages have dropped from 48 in 2017/18 to around 10 in 2020.
And Priscilla and several other girls who have been saved from the jaws of early marriages and teenage pregnancies hope that more girls across the country could have such opportunities even in the midst of crises like the Covid-19 pandemic.