Married off in payment of debt


From Kupimbira to Mbirigha to any evil traditional practice one can think of, girl children in Karonga are victims of modern day slavery at the hands of those who should have protected them.

How on earth can any crime against humanity be described as normal? MANDY PONDANI investigates

She was 17 then.


And her greatest crime on earth was to be a daughter to a man who was in debt which he could not afford to pay back.

So, Perepe Mtuwa was to become the currency –the coins and the banknotes –with which to settle the debt.

Without her knowing it, the debtor agreed with the creditor, Village Headman Giliya, that he marries his daughter as repayment for the debt.


In this Traditional Authority Kilupula’s area, as is the case throughout Karonga district, the man is god such that women are hardly party to many critical household decisions.

Which is why even Perepe’s mother never knew about plans that her girl was being married off, until it happened.

This stifling veil of secrecy fell on everyone else in the community except a select few elders on both sides of the family who knew the arrangement. Thus, Perepe was taken away to her husband in the ominous shroud of the night –an innocent child trafficked away to the slavery of marriage.

Perepe became the fourth wife for the polygamous Giliya. And that made part of the little girl’s nightmare.

“Being the youngest wife, he spends most of the time with me. That means a huge responsibility of caring for him, especially now that he is not in his best condition of health,” said Perepe, now 20.

Sometime last year, Giliya, who is also acting Group Village Headman Mwaulambo, had an asthmatic attack for which he was bedridden at Karonga District Hospital for almost a week.

Throughout that period, Perepe was tasked with being the guardian of the old, ailing man while the co-wives, far older and more experienced, stayed back in the comfort of their homes at the village, attending to personal issues.

Asked what the experience was like looking after the man, words failed to come out of Perepe’s mouth, initially. But the expression on her face clearly told what an awful errand this was to her. And then she broke into words: “It was the first time for me to be in hospital as guardian to a seriously sick person. I was clueless but I had no choice.

“I barely had food I relied on hospital supplies and from other well-wishers.”

That Perepe, now a mother to a one-and-half year daughter, has had to go through this torture will beat the understanding of those who know the area in question.

The area is subject of interventions by a number of civil society and community based organisations pushing for children’s rights and girl child protection.

So, just how did Perepe’s case escape their attention? Jimmy Mwakafwira is chairperson for Tutulane Community Based Organisation (CBO).

He said Perepe’s case is delicate because the culprit, Giliya, is a senior man in Ngonde’s  hierarchy. Therefore, he could not be handled anyhow by anyone, he said.

“We the Ngonde hold our traditional leaders in very high esteem and we grow up to lessons that they never go wrong and are at liberty to marry any woman of their choice.

“So, in as much as things are changingin modern days, it is still not very easy to stand up and confront the chief on such a matter because we believe they have exclusive rights. That’s why you see that no one has manned up to try to rescue the girl for fear of expulsion from the village and other consequences,” said Mwakafwira. This is the fate in which girls find themselves in Karonga. In the district, girls are hapless young souls trapped in the dehumanising web of cultural conspiracy.

Here, young girls’ humanity is traded at a parent’s whim at the price of some pittance of money, a couple of heads of cattle and material things or, at worst, as payment for debt as was the case with Perepe.

The community knows it in their heart of hearts that this culture is despicable. Yet it looks away in the name of deference to authority or seniors or fear of consequences.

But this reporter confronted Giliya last month for him to explain his misdeeds.

Clad in his black old-school jacket and trendy sunglasses, he showed up at the place of the interview at exactly 13:00 hours – in the company of his favourite wife, Perepe.

We asked him whether he, as traditional leader, felt that he was setting a good example to his subjects by marrying a young girl who was supposed to be in school.

Calmly, Giliya said it was in compliance with the norm.

And then, shockingly, he added: “At my age, it’s obvious that my first wives are equally aged but as a leader I need to look neat, put on ironed clothes and have meals in good time in order to catch up with business. “That’s why you will see young wives like this one because they are still energetic to keep up with the pressure of taking care of a home.”

“It doesn’t matter the manner in which you bring her in,” said Giliya without a trace of remorse in his voice. Senior Group Village Headman Atusaye Mwangomba, also from Kilipula’s area, said Giliya’s case is one of the many in the area in which young girls continue to fall victim to flourishing harmful Ngonde cultural practices. He acknowledged that government and non-governmental organisations have spoken loudly against these traditions that impinge on girl children’s rights and welfare.

But only tactics have changed, he said. The practice has not stopped. “Reports by various CSOs will tell you that through their various interventions a practice like Kupimbira is all but history. But I will tell you that it is still happening and young girls continue to be forced into marriages.

People have just changed the approach,” he said.

In Kupimbira, parents force their girl child into marrying a man of their choice just so they can receive the cash or materials paid as bride price. In most cases, parents just don’t care how this is done.

That’s how Georgina Mtambo, 17, from Mwahimba Village in the area of Traditional Authority Kyungu, found herself in marriage.

She was in Form One at Baka Community Day Secondary School where her boyfriend was a class ahead.

One day, on her way home from school and in her boyfriend’s company,

Georgina met her father herding his cattle.

“He did not say anything but when I got home I found my clothes dumped on the kitchen verandah and he had instructed that I should leave his compound to the boy’s place. That’s how I found myself married,” Georgina narrated. Today, Georgina and her husband and their eight months’ old daughter live a miserable hand-to-mouth kind of life.

To make money to feed his family, the husband operates a bicycle taxi in the morning before he goes to school in the afternoon.

Life is tough for Georgina. This is not the life she wanted. But she cannot go back to her parents home since they got their cow and a calf in bride price.

So she remains enslaved to marriage – forever.

In Karonga, it should hurt to be born a girl for you almost always have a bloody noose hanging over your head.

Here, when an older sister is married to a well-off man, the woman’s parents can decide to give out their younger daughter to the son in-law as a way of thanking him for taking good care of their older daughter.

Termed Mbirigha, the practice flourishes in the district with the normalcy of a proper way of life, making a mockery of thousands of legal and human rights instruments that stress on protecting the girl child.

But for victim-turned counselor Enala Nguru, 36, such cultural practices are helped much by illiteracy.

Married off to a polygamous man at the age of 15 in 1994, Nguru was a third wife to a man with whom they have six children.

Drawing lessons from her situation, Nguru is championing the need for girls to stay in school.

According to her, only an educated generation can appreciate the evils of the cultural practices and primitive behaviours that continue to be propagated in her area.

Nguru grew up an orphan, without a relation who could support her education. Her uncles pushed her into marriage instead so they could get the bride price.

After 14 years in marriage, Nguru went back to school in 2008. At the age of 30, she sat for her Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PSLCE) examination and got selected to Chirumba Secondary School.

In 2015 she made a second attempt at Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examination as she was not impressed by the 36 points she scored in the first attempt.

She is not employed but she has taken it upon herself to mobilise young mothers and girls into groups where she inspires them on the importance of education and how it could make them free.

Executive Director for a local NGO, Foundation for Community Support Services (Focus), Kossam Munthali, prays for more women of Nguru’s type.

The organisation was responsible for Nguru’s tuition fees and her other school requirements. “When we heard about her story we were impressed by her resilience and courage.

“We do not regret to be part of her success story and we are proud that she has taken it upon herself to encourage young girls who are in similar situations that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Munthali.

Focus runs a number of projects on issues of gender and child protection in the district and since its inception it has withdrawn over 40 girls from early marriages and sent them back to school.

But that is only a modest contribution to what is a colossal problem, Munthali indicated.

“As a country we are too comfortable to notice the damage our so-called traditions and customs are causing. Should we [continue] to sit back and relax, we will one day wake up to a nation with just a handful of educated women,” he said.

Speaking to the media recently, Minister of Gender, Children and Social Welfare, Patricia Kaliati, called for concerted effort among various players to combat child marriages in the country.

“Government needs not to be reminded about the situation of our girls especially in rural areas. We are fully aware [of this].

“That is why we have embarked on a programme of linking those that have been withdrawn from marriages to a number of organisations who can support their education. Our wish is to withdraw everyone and bring them on board but resources are not permitting,” said Kaliati.

So, will Perepe be rescued? Will Malawi stop her girls from being sold off like some nondescript scrapheap item?

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