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Mother groups curbing child marriages

By Josephine Chinele:

MILOPO—Some traditional ceremonies are encouraging child marriages

Every academic year, young girls have been dropping out of Nsala Primary School, located in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chikowi’s area in Zomba, to get married because by this time, a majority of them are already pregnant.

Being young brides or mothers is seemingly fashionable among youngsters of this area due to society’s perception that girls are meant to get married and have child regardless of age, a thing which has led to more school drop outs from the area and having very few (girls) excelling in life.

In Chileka, Blantyre, parents have for long been trading their girl child to men who visit their villages on holiday but live and work in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Random interviews with the communities leave one with the impression that the parents are seemingly in competition to marry off their children. Some of them are even holding on to misconceptions passed from previous generations that when their child is educated, they will be bewitched.

We learnt that the ‘Joni or Jozi’ (Johannesburg) men approach the girls, with gifts which they take home. It seems the culture has become deep rooted because some parents do not even question where the gifts and money are coming from and this ends up in child marriages.

The Jozi men silence the parents with money and materials such as blankets and clothes. Sadly, the men are never in a stable marriage with the girls; they are fond of leaving their young brides expectant and in poverty.

Traditional leaders of Kuntaja area in Blantyre lament that they have been having difficulties to deal with child marriages because of the parents.

Village Headman Chimutu points out that some mothers have become stubborn, allegedly because they feel it is their right to push their young girls into marriage.

“Parents, especially women, are on the forefront doing this. Their husbands are also failing to guide them. The mothers have become so stubborn and feel more powerful on these issues,” he claims.

Village Headman Chilaka of T/A Kuntaja complains of similar problems, adding that there are now a few educated people in his area, especially girls.

“The Child marriage problem is being fuelled by parents who have become hostile to anyone advising them against it. They feel nobody can tell them anything about their girl child’s fate. There are many cases in my village. The men from Joni are the ‘highest bidders’,” he says.

Group Village Head Mtiza also shares his views:

“Parents want to marry off the children for their economic benefit. Since there are a lot of child marriages, development is hard to come by and many children are not educated. A village needs educated people for it to progress,” he notes.

Headmaster for Nsala Primary School, Yakobe Milopo does not hide his disappointment over the high rate of school drop outs due to pregnancies, which end up in child marriages.

“I have tried to meet the traditional leaders and parents to find out what exactly the problem is, but I didn’t get any convincing reasons…But I have observed that there are some traditional ceremonies that are somehow fueling early sex debut and encouraging child marriages,” he laments.

The school’s records indicate that drop outs are high from Standard Five to Eight. The records indicate that in 2016, 13 drop outs (due to pregnancies) were recorded, 16 in 2017 and 18 in 2018.

“NGOs have come and ended their project years but nothing has changed,” Milopo says.

He is however hopeful that the situation could change because the school’s mother group has become aggressive to have the girl child educated.

Realising that there are a lot of school drop outs at Nsala and other primary schools, some Non-Governmental Organisations initiated the establishment of these mother groups.

Mother groups are grassroots grouping of women whose other role is to help rescue girls from child marriages and keeping them in school.

The Nsala Primary School mother group has extended its mandate to providing information on Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights to adolescents.

They have also encouraged some girls who have given birth or were married to return to school. The school also has a register where those in need of contraceptives record their particulars in order to get referral to access them from the nearest Chirombo Health Centre.

20 year old Patricia Benet of Ganda Village, T/A Chikowi in Zomba is one of the girls who returned to school after mother group members convinced her.

“I went back to school when my child was one year eight months old,” says Benet, adding that her most educated sibling reached form three, but she aspires to do more and become a nurse.

Nsala Primary School mother group vice chairperson, Mary Mwangata says parents are slowly beginning to understand the importance of contraceptive usage in adolescent girls.

“We have managed to convince five parents in the last three months to let their girls return to school and use contraceptives,” she adds.

Every Friday, the mother group leaders meet the girls at the school to encourage them on the importance of education and the ills of child marriage.

Unicef says child marriage often compromises a girl’s development by resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupting her schooling, limiting her opportunities for career and vocational advancement and placing her at increased risk of domestic violence.

UNFPA says child marriages, coupled with school dropouts for girls, are of big concern to Malawi. It says 25 percent of girls never finish primary school due to child marriage.

T/A Kunjaja’s mother group Chairperson, Enifa Maulidi says child marriage is rampant in her area due to poverty.

She says at times, children get married because parents fail to provide them with the basic necessities such as notebooks and uniform.

In such situations, she says, mother groups try to counsel the parents but get various excuses.

“They even proudly declare that in their family, nobody is educated. They believe that once their children are educated, they will be bewitched. We have tried to convince them that times have changed; now every child has to go to school as there is free primary education,” she explains.

Maulidi admits that the fruits of the evils of child marriage in her area are clear as girls have acquired Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and early pregnancies which have led to difficult deliveries.

Comfort Arms for Needy Children Administrator, Chitekesa Gama, says his organisation is working in T/A Kuntaja’s area because the area is remotely located and communities have no means of getting the right information on child marriage and governance issues.

The organisation says it is working together with mother groups and traditional leaders, adding all girls who were married off are highly encouraged to go back to school.

“We work with traditional leaders for them to disseminate information about the ills of child marriage and ensure that they make by-laws in their villages that would help curb these early marriages.

“We also follow up the returned girl child’s school performance through head teachers and class teachers. We support them through counseling and provision of school materials,” Gama elaborates.

Child marriages have damaging consequences for young women and their families, as noted by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

These include higher-than-average maternal morbidity and mortality rates; higher infant mortality among their children; incapacity to responsibly raise their children to be productive citizens; lack of personal and economic autonomy; limited participation in development; limited decision making in relation to their own lives and increased risk of domestic violence, HIV among others. In most cases, these issues deplete government resources through medication and the poverty tend to overburden the district councils in one way or the other.

Public Health Programme Manager of Panos Institute Southern Africa Mamoletsane Khati has this to say:

“Advocating for girls’ education and protection of their rights through targeting parents, girls and other opinion leaders in the communities (traditional leaders, religious leaders, political leaders alike) ensures a proactive role played by all in ending the vice.

This is centred around building their appreciation of the right to dignity for the girl child and mobilising them to actively defend girls from child marriages which is a violation of their fundamental human rights”.

Plan international is one of the organisations which has worked very hard to push for the change in Malawi marriage laws from 16 to 18 years.

According to the organisation’s website, (the organisation) is still working with communities to end child marriage, empowering young people to advocate and campaign against it, providing safe spaces and support networks for girls at risk of child marriage, helping families understand the consequences of marriage by working with communities, supporting girls to stay in school and working with communities to make sure that girls are valued.

Girls not Brides website says lack of attention to child marriage undermined the achievement of six of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) between 2000 to 2015. This is why there is a need to work on disseminating as much information as possible on the ills of child marriage in order to achieve the SDGs. Almost all the goals for the United Nations (2015) Sustainable Development goals are linked to child marriage.

It further says child marriage is a core development and human rights issue, which hinders the achievement of many other development goals. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which define global development priorities between now and 2030 – includes the elimination of all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations’ (under Goal five ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls).

In order to end this vice, we should involve all including parents and mothers to take a role in ensuring the right to education in an effort to eradicate child marriage.

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