By Macdonald Thom:
Statistics from Mchinji District Social Welfare Office show that there were 551 cases of early marriages from January to August last year.
In the same year, teenage pregnancies were reported to be 4,891. According to the statistics, this year, by the beginning of this month, the cases had already reached 3,614.
Mchinji District Youth Officer Maudling Nhlema says the youth are heavily affected by early marriages as teenage pregnancies.
“Nearly half of the girls aged between 15 and 24 years are married before the age of 18. Although 88 percent of the girls in the district are enrolled in primary school, only 11 percent of those are enrolled in secondary schools,” Nhlema says.
Josephine Banda, who hails from Traditional Authority Zulu, says the problems are deep-rooted.
“Early marriages are rampant in our area. These problems start from our homes,” she says.
There is, however, hope that the problems being experienced in the district will soon be history.
Malawi Girl Guides Association (Magga) is, with technical and financial support from United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA), working on addressing on challenges that adolescent girls and teen mothers in central Malawi face.
Dedza and Mchinji are the two districts where the project is being implemented.
Its aim is to contribute to improving the sexual and reproductive health and rights of teen mothers and adolescent girls in three Traditional Authorities in each district.
Korean International Cooperation Agency (Koica) is funding the project.
Components of the project include recruitment and training of mentors, identification and recruitment of adolescent girls, mentorship sessions and capacity building of the safe space model.
It also involves improvement of income levels of adolescent girls in the targeted districts.
Through the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the project will also initiate Farmer Field Schools for mentors, adolescent girls in safe spaces and boys and young men in youth clubs.
Banda, who has been trained as one of the mentors, says she is happy that Magga and partners have intervened.
“We are happy that Magga has come to ease the problems we are experiencing. This project will help us a lot,” she says.
Recently, she, alongside other mentors from T/ As Mduwa, Mkanda and Zulu in Mchinji received bicycles to ease their mobility challenges as they mentor girls in their respective areas.
UNFPA Country Representative, Young Hong, says teen pregnancies are a major driver of intergenerational poverty in Malawi.
She appeals to all stakeholders to intensify efforts in ending teenage pregnancies and early marriages.
“Teen pregnancies are a fundamental development challenge in Malawi. It shouldn’t be labelled as a women’s and girls’ issue. It is a development issue.
“All Malawians are heavily affected. Economic growth will not be achieved if we don’t address teen pregnancies and child marriages,” she says.
Director of Youth in the Ministry of Youth and Sports, Judith Msusa, says the efforts being made are helping in easing sexual and reproductive health rights challenges.
“There are high rates of teenage pregnancies, high rates of abuse among the teen mothers and adolescent girls,” Msusa says.
She adds that through the Safe Space Model, girls and teen mothers meet and discuss issues that affect their lives.
Msusa also says the model makes sure that the girls and teen mothers are empowered, have information to protect themselves from abuse, are able to report abuse and that they are able to access information regarding reproductive health and where they can access the services.
“We believe that with the safe spaces, we are bringing the services closer to the teen mothers and adolescent girls. We believe that with that approach, we will be able to bring the required information for them to make informed decisions,” she says.
Magga Chief Commissioner, Mary Ngwale, says they started implementing the project with the aim of fighting child marriages and early pregnancies.
“In a survey we conducted, we found out that most girls in Mchinji and Dedza drop out of school. To curb that, with support from UNFPA and other partners, we started implementing this project,” she says.
She adds that since the girls are staying in different zones, for mobility purposes, they purchased bicycles for the mentors so that they can reach out to as many girls as they can.
A total 138 bicycles were distributed to the mentors in both Mchinji and Dedza.
The project is targeting 216,000 girls and young women aged between 10 and 24 years in the two districts.