By Maston Kaiya:
She looks unassuming but is very determined.
One cannot miss the enthusiasm she displays especially when she is talking about early marriages and girls’ education.
She is Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwanza of Salima, one of Malawi’s lakeshore districts.
With her headquarters located about 60 kilometres from Salima Zero Point, the chief reigns over an area comprising 655 village heads and 157 group village heads with a population of about 16,000 people.
She realises that education is critical to the development of her area and the country as a whole, hence the need to ensure that girls do not drop out of school for marriage.
To this effect, Mwanza has taken a tough stance against child marriages in her area.
So far, she has terminated 83 of the unions in the area and the disbanded ‘youthful couples’ have since been sent back to school.
“Terminating a marriage is not an easy thing to do but I am doing it here despite threats from hard-line traditionalists, members of the clergy and other individuals who benefit from such unions,” Mwanza says.
Since 2016, she has sent back to school 1,300 girls and boys including 51 girls with babies.
Mwanza says she draws inspiration from women who hold high positions in society because of education.
“Girls must not rush into marriages. They should get educated first. All the working class ladies are in such positions because they went to school first. I am, therefore, emphasising education first before marriage,” she says.
According to the chief, cases of early marriages have become rare since she embarked on her mission unlike in the past when girls as young as 14 could get married.
She hails Girls Education and Women Empowerment (Gewe) Project, which was supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), for initiating the fight against child marriages in her area.
Malawi is ranked eighth out of 20 countries considered to have the highest rates of child marriages in the world, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
Unicef further notes that almost one in two girls is a bride before her 18th birthday and some are married before the age of 15.
Again, in lower grades of the country’s primary schools, only 45 percent of girls stay in school beyond standard eight.
According to Unicef, extreme poverty, gender inequality and lack of education make the problem particularly acute in the country.
Child marriages and pregnancy remain the main causes of the high dropout rates.
But many young girls who drop out of school face challenges to earn a living and, eventually, get exposed to various forms of gender-based violence.
Mwanza’s Area Development Committee chairperson, Mussa Jecksen commends the local ruler for her commitment to end child marriages.
Jecksen says Mwanza has heard 548 cases whose complainants were females and children, especially girls, since 2016 when she started the campaign.
He says 44 cases were referred to a court of law and that nine people are serving jail sentences for various charges including defilement.
Meanwhile, Mwanza’s role in terminating child marriages and sending children back to school has put her in international limelight.
She says in 2017, when wife to late Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, visited Malawi, UNFPA arranged a meeting between her and the former South African first lady.
“I had a chance to meet with her and discuss initiatives against child marriages which I am implementing,” she says.
She adds that Machel was impressed with the initiatives and promised to spread her ideas beyond the borders of Malawi since the issue of child marriages is global.
To this effect, Chief Mwanza visited Addis Ababa in Ethiopia where she preached against child marriages.
She says she is following an example set by Senior Chief Kachindamoto of Dedza whose tough stance against child marriages has also earned her global recognition.
“We have also put in place bylaws in order to deal with child marriages. The bylaws were formulated by the community and were accepted by stakeholders. Therefore, whoever breaks them pays a fine,” she says, adding that culprits are ordered to pay even a goat or more.
As one way of encouraging children to go to school, Mwanza says she solicited support from well-wishers to acquire 67 bicycles for students at Mbilira Community Day Secondary School to use.
“These bicycles were given to 43 girls and 20 boys who used to walk long distances to go to school. When they finish school, they will leave them for others to use,” the chief says.
She also instituted village banking initiatives in various communities where every household around a particular school pays K100 per month to cater for some of the challenges students face.
Additionally, a community bursary was launched in September, 2017 to cater for students whose parents and guardians fail to pay school fees.
Community Development Assistant for the area, Daniel Chawanda says, currently, four students are benefiting from the community bursary.
UNFPA’s Resident Representative, Young Hong, hails Mwanza’s role and says early marriages are not healthy for various reasons.
“The girls are not physically, mentally and economically ready when they marry at an early age,” she says.
After Kachindamoto and Mwanza, perhaps, all chiefs in the country should join the crusade on child marriages and move Malawi out of the group of 20 countries with the highest rates in the world.
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