While the government and stakeholders are annulling child marriages and sending teen mothers back to school in the hope of securing a brighter future, some girls are facing myriad challenges, including bullying and lack of basic needs due to poverty which drove them into early marriages in the first place. As MATILDA MAJAWA writes, only 30 percent of these teen mothers can complete their studies as some drop out and get married again, raising the question of whether the initiative is worth it.
Every girl has a dream. However, some girls with a dream face numerous challenges, ranging from poverty, school dropout due to child marriages, unwanted early pregnancies,cultural beliefs, just to mention a few.
And, according to a United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) report, the main drivers of child marriages in Malawi include poverty, cultural and religious traditions, with poverty marked as the key underling driver of high child marriage rates.
One of the districts where these findings hold true is Mulanje in the Southern Region.
Beneath the seeming beauty of Mulanje Mountain lies a belief that has, for years, deprived girls of the chance to pursue their dreams.
Many of them are either married off or choose to get married at a tender age to men with little or more money than their parents just to escape poverty.
Eighteen-year-old Joana Supuni from Mose Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mabuka, in the district will never forget the day she decided that, despite her love for school, she had enough of poverty and had to get married.
At the time, to her, marriage was akin to being in haven, hence, when she learned that she, then aged 16, was pregnant for a 21-year-old barber in Mulanje District, she did not hesitate but get married right away.
“I thought that, by getting married, I would run away from poverty but I met the shock of my life and, instead of making my life better, I made it worse as I now had a husband and child to take care of,” said the mother to an 18-month-old child.
Margaret Namunera, from the same village, was also forced into early marriage as her parents thought this was her only way to a better life while, at the same time, bailing them out of the poverty trap.
“I was forced to get married at 17 because of poverty as my mother is just a housewife while my father is a kabaza operator who could not afford to fend for the family. My ex-husband used to abuse me physically and emotionally but I was forced to hang on because I didn’t know what else to do,” the teen mother said.
Malawi has made tremendous progress in recent years towards meeting the goal of ending child marriages.
In 2015, Malawi adopted the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, which set 18 years as the legal minimum age for marriage and, in February 2017, a legal loophole allowing children between the ages of 15 and 18 to marry with parental consent was closed with an amendment to the Constitution.
However, cases of child marriage go unabated, with about 46 percent of girls married before the age of 18 and nine percent before the age of 15.
According to the latest Unicef report, Malawi has the 11th highest rate of child getting marriages in the world, and the ninth highest rate in Africa.
Apart from passing laws, in 2014, the Malawi Government— through the Ministry of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Development— empowered traditional leaders to come up with by-laws to deal with the problem at grassroots level.
Senior Chief Kachindamoto has, since 2004, been one of the traditional leaders known for nullifying child marriages.
“I have managed to dissolve over 2,400 child marriages in Dedza District and send the girls back to school,” she said.
Kachindamoto said, while traditional leaders are doing all they can to end child marriages in their respective areas, poverty remains a major setback to the efforts.
“Most girls get married to run away from poverty without knowing that they have just made their poverty levels worse. Some parents even marry off their children to older men in exchange for financial support,” she said.
In support of government initiatives on ending child marriages, traditional leaders and other stakeholders have been rescuing children from marriage.
When Joana, now a form three student at Milonde Community Day Secondary School, had enough, she decided to leave the marriage courtesy of a Mulanje-based non-governmental organisation.
However, no one prepared her for what to expect when she went back to school.
“I was bullied and called all sorts of names. The people I thought were my friends before I got married distanced themselves from me to the extent that I wanted to drop out of school but, because I have dreams of becoming a nurse, I decided to endure,” she said.
Margaret was also encouraged to go back to school after people working for the non-governmental organisation paid her a visit.
The standard seven learner at Kumilombe Primary School in Mulanje said the challenge which drove her into marriage, poverty, is still in existence and she is facing challenges in her quest to get an education.
“The organisation gave me starter-pack, which included five exercise books and pens, when I was returning to school earlier this year, but they have never supported me ever since,” the 19-year-old said.
Fanny Chipengule was also rescued from an abusive early marriage with the help of Group Village Headwoman (GVH) Tambala, under T/A Chikumbu, in Mulanje District.
“When I was married, I used to lack soap, food, and other basic needs. I got married because I would go to school on an empty stomach, and I even had to study and sleep on an empty stomach. And when I had a still birth, that is when GVH Tambala encouraged me to go back to school,” she said.
Kachindamoto concurred with the girls, adding that the initiative is no longer encouraging teen mothers in her area to go back to school as some of those who went back to school and failed to secure a place in public universities after sitting Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations are still in the village doing nothing.
GVH Tambala said the major challenge in fighting against child marriages in her area is the fact that some parents have left the responsibility of providing for their children in the hands of traditional leaders and other stakeholders.
“Instead of supporting the initiative of sending young mothers to school, they come to you whenever their child is asking them for school necessities such as notebooks and school uniform,” she said.
On the other hand, Mikoko Primary School teacher, Anthony Martin, admitted that bullying is, indeed, one of the major factors contributing to school dropout rates among teen mothers.
One of the country’s clinical psychologists, and Professor of Mental Health at Kamuzu College of Health Sciences, Chiwoza Bandawe, emphasised the need for young mothers who have been rescued from marriage to undergo counselling before they go back to school.
“They definitely should be counselled before sending them back to school because it is a change of life and whatever they have gone through in their marriage, they need to process it,” Bandawe said.
Bandawe said the counselling should come in when they leave the marriage but also when they start school.
“What counsellors can do is to change some people’s mindset that, if someone is teasing you, it is not your problem and it is not about you but, rather, the one who is doing the teasing. The counselling includes a lot of guidance, such as giving them insights into the purpose and objective of life, and we need to have those kinds of programmes,” he said.
Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Minister, Patricia Kaliati, said, to deal with the root cause of early child marriages, which is poverty, the ministry has cash transfer programmes given to those registered.
“There is no way one can say ‘I don’t have food and support’. We also have several NGOs in the localities which are supporting girls,” she said.
Unfortunately, all the three girls that were interviewed are yet to start benefitting from the cash transfer initiative.
Ministry of Gender Public Relations Officer, Fred Simwaka, said the ministry has a programme aimed at nullifying child marriages housed under gender-based violence and women’s right.
“Through the programme, we try to reinforce the policies we have and some of the strategic documents and make sure that the laws are working, especially the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act.
“We increased the age of marriage from 16 to 18 and we ensure that people abide by this. So, in terms of programming, it is a national programme where we work in collaboration with district councils, chiefs and religious leaders,” he said.
However, Simwaka admitted that the percentage of rescued girls that remain in school is very low.
“When we nullify a hundred marriages, those that, indeed, go back to school might not be all of them, maybe 80 percent, but then sustaining them might be as low as 30 or 40 percent,” Simwaka said.
He said the government supports needy students with school fees through bursaries.
“For some students who are unable to support themselves, the government provides them with bursaries but, then, the portfolio for us to send back all the girls that are poor to school and put them on bursaries is almost impossible,” he said.
The experiences of girls from Mulanje and Ntcheu reflect a common reality for many girls in rural Malawi.
In as much as the government is trying to end child marriages, there is so much to be done as the major challenge, poverty, remains far-reaching and prevalent.
Matilda Chimwaza Majawa is a Features Reporter at Times Group. She is passionate about women and girls empowerment.