As Malawi continues to grapple with the devastating effects of the novel coronavirus, with children bearing the brunt especially as they remain out of school, there are community leaders who are further fuelling abuse against the little ones, our correspondent CHRISTIAN JUMA writes.
Child marriage continues to be one of the biggest forms of abuse that girls experience in Malawi, with about 46 percent of them marrying before their 18th birthday and nine percent before they turn 15.
Generally, poverty, cultural and religious traditions are taken as the main drivers of the practice.
In the northernmost district of Chitipa, men are marrying underage girls and sometimes escape with them into neighbouring Zambia and Tanzania. Such girls are also at risk of contracting Sexually Transmitted Infections as they have little power to protect themselves.
A teacher at Titi Primary School in the border district has married a 16-year-old form one learner at Chinthekwe Community Day Secondary School while a Village Head has also married a 17-year-old standard eight learner at Kapele Primary School as his fourth wife.
It is alleged that in March this year, the community red-handedly caught the Titi Primary School teacher in the bush with the girl but the two managed to escape before they were apprehended.
The girls’ parents, who had just struggled to pay K80,000 as part of the K130,000 school fees for their daughter, got infuriated that someone who was supposed to be the little one’s protector was abusing her.
“I am still devastated,” the girl’s father, a Mr Masebo, said. “Teachers are entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of learners but the teacher enticed my daughter into such unbecoming acts.”
The father of six went on to say that he had no opportunity to go further with education due to poverty but wanted his children to be educated, regardless of their gender.
“My daughter is intelligent. I had high expectations that she would make it big in life but her future now hangs in balance. In the meantime, I don’t know where she is but I am ready to welcome her back home,” he says.
According to Masebo, the search for the girl has taken the parents to Nkhata Bay, Mzuzu and Tunduma and Mbeya in Tanzania where some of her relatives stay but all in vain.
Chinthekwe Secondary School Mother Group chairperson Rachel Sibale described the girl as one of the most brilliant in the village.
“We heard that the girl eloped with her former primary school teacher to Nakachenje Village which is the teacher’s home but efforts to find the girl have yielded nothing,” Sibale said.
However, the teacher who re-appeared in the village mid-August, denied that he was in a love relationship with the minor, saying it was just a teacher-pupil affair.
He said: “Those were just rumours. Of course, the girl could come to my place for some piece work, just like any other learner.
“I was just surprised when my Head teacher summoned me on the same issue and later, the District Education Manager asked me to write a report on the allegations.”
Elsewhere in the district, Village Head Muyimbo III, aged 37 with 10 children from his three wives, took in a Standard Eight 16-year-old learner as his fourth wife. The underage age is a younger sister to one of Muyimbo’s wives.
After realising that he had committed an offence, the local ruler, real name Daniel Simfukwe, is said to have fled and sought refuge in Zambia before returning recently.
A visit to the village with two civil society organisations (CSOs) Justice and Peace of Karonga Diocese and World Vision Malawi which are safeguarding a girl child’s future in the area and providing material support to minors, established that the Village Headman and the girl were living together as husband and wife.
Simfukwe said his three wives had given consent that he could take the minor as his fourth wife.
“I talked to my elder wives about it and they have no problem with it. The girl is not interested in school anymore,” Simfukwe said.
And again, at Navitengo III Village, a 16-year-old Standard Seven learner was also rescued from a pre-arranged marriage with one Daniel Mbindi. The girl’s father reportedly received K20,000 from Mbindi as the first part of processes for marriage.
After the intervention by World Vision Malawi and Justice and Peace, the girl is back in school, ready to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.
Several other girls are facing similar challenges in the border district.
According to Senior Chief Kameme, such cases are rampant and become difficult to check as most of the times the perpetrators flee into Zambia and Tanzania the moment they realise they are being pursued.
“As a community leader, my plea is for the government to seal our porous borders if we are to deal with child marriages and trafficking for cheap labour to neighbouring countries,” Kameme said.
And to show his seriousness about his aversion to girl-child abuse, the chief moved in quickly to dethrone Village Head Muyimbo III.
“Let the law enforcers do their job. Girls are supposed to be protected by teachers and traditional leaders,” Kameme said.
The police, on the other hand, believe issues of girls being married off are cross-cutting and require all stakeholders to work together in dealing with them.
Chitipa Police Officer-in-Charge Aubrey Kawale condemned parents who push young girls into early marriages because they want money.
His office moved in to arrest the Titi Primary School teacher over his alleged involvement in a love relationship with a minor and her subsequent missing.
Meanwhile, Kawale has given the father of the missing girl an ultimatum to find the missing girl or risk arrest for not reporting the matter to police.
Justice and Peace Project Officer responsible for Kameme, Moses Mwakisalu, has since called on relevant authorities to investigate various abuse cases in the area and bring to book all perpetrators.