Dozens of girls are falling pregnant every hour as parents, the government and non-governmental organisations seem to be helpless on how to protect the little ones, YOHANE SYMON writes.
GIRLS as young as 10-years-old are falling pregnant every hour, hundreds in a day and thousands in months across the country. They are those who were supposed to be in school in the pursuit of shaping their future.
But the closure of the learning facilities has pushed them into some very unusual behaviours. They are engaging in acts that are bringing them unwanted pregnancies and it is a crisis. Of course, it has been there all this while, only compounded now by the Covid-19 crisis.
Malawi has a population of about 17 million people, which comprises 46.17 percent children aged from 0 to 14 years and 20.58 percent youths aged 15 to 24.
About 33 percent of the population comprises people aged 25 – 65 and above. About 10 million of the population comprises women whose majority is within the child-bearing age.
The survey further puts 18 years as an average age of a woman to have her first birth. But young girls in the country are bearing children more than women who have reached the recommended child-bearing age.
For instance, at the age of 14, Charity (not real name), of Lukala Village, Traditional Authority Chowe in Mangochi, is expecting her first child due in December.
Charity was still doing her primary school within the same area by the time she got pregnant.
“My mother and father separated some time ago. I was told to be staying with my grandmother so that I could be helping her with household chores,” she says.
Staying with her grandmother has not proved to be a good experience for Charity as she has to help her fend for household essential items.
As a result, men, who see how Charity struggles to fend for her grandmother, took advantage of her situation and started to propose love to her. Later, she fell for one man within the same village.
“The man operates a bicycle taxi. I could not resist because he was assisting me with soap and other items,” she adds.
In about six months, Charity is among over 7,000 teenage girls who have fallen pregnant in Mangochi, translating into 40 percent of them falling pregnant every day.
Peter Malipa, who is Youth Friendly Health Services Coordinator for Mangochi, says about 166 of the girls are aged between 10 and 14.
However, Malipa says the 7,274 girls are only those who reported at the hospital for antenatal services. This means that chances are high that there are more girls who are pregnant and did not report for hospital to be registered.
Apart from Mangochi, Balaka is another district which is struggling to contain teenage pregnancies. About 307 teenage girls are said to be falling pregnant every month.
This is happening despite the country having relevant laws that outlaw such kind of pregnancies,
Section 138 of the Penal Code describes defilement as any pregnancy of a girl below the age of 16. However, more men continue to go unpunished despite impregnating girls under the said age.
For instance, out of 4,000 pregnancies that fall under the defilement category in the Eastern Region, only 186 have been reported to police.
In Mangochi, out of over 7,274 teenage pregnancies, the police only registered 48 cases.
The situation is also similar in Balaka where an average of 307 girls are getting pregnant every month, but only 22 cases were reported to police for action.
In Machinga and Zomba, a total of 119 cases were handled by the police in the past six months despite the two districts having more than 3,500 teenage pregnancies according to recorded figures.
This clearly shows that more stories behind these pregnancies are not reported for action. Girls continue to play victim to men who are supposed to provide protection to them.
Stakeholders in the fight against child marriages believe that failure by the police and the courts to expedite defilement cases discourage most parents to report when their children have been defiled.
Executive Director of Youth Net and Counseling (Yoneco) MacBain Mkandawire concludes that there is no justice for children in Malawi although there are hundreds of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that are working in the area of promoting child rights.
Mkandawire says Malawi is still lagging behind in terms of securing the environment for children, especially girls.
“The biggest challenge is that we are so much obsessed with holding meetings where we share cosmetic results of how we are doing in terms of girls’ protection. But the truth is that our girls remain in danger out there,” he says.
Mkandawire blames the tendency of spending more resources on trainings and other workshops instead of implementing programmes that will directly empower the youths to be able to make decisions about their bodies.
He says most of the resources which are meant for implementation of child protection programmes are misplaced because a big part is spent at the national level than at the village level where the most-prone girls are found.
“You will find out that at least 80 percent of project funding is spent on software activities at the national or head office level. This means that we are remaining with very little money to use in protecting the girl child. Government should find a way of making sure that NGOs are channelling their funds towards critical issues,” he says.
He also challenged Malawians to take a strong interest in protecting girls in their society.
“The duty, to protect children is not for laws only. We need to make the law work because the law itself cannot protect girls,” he says.
Mkandawire also notes that in certain areas failure by the police to arrest and prosecute perpetrators of defilement has worsened the situation.
He accuses some police officers of conniving with perpetrators by hiding case files which makes it hard for the cases to conclude.
“Most of the cases that move with speed involve children from well-to-do families. But children from poor families are not getting justice because of corruption by police and other child-protection officers. As a result, some parents and guardians do not see the need to report such cases,” Mkandawire says.
Another child rights advocate Summy Aaron expresses fear that at the rate things are going, Malawi will continue being stuck in poverty.
Aaron says girls need to be educated for them to help in national building through their involvement in social and economic activities.
“But instead, the girls are being ruined. Government should start monitoring the performance of NGOs because we have many of them that are drawing money from donors but they are not implementing any activities on the ground,” he laments.
According to Traditional Authorities Lulanga and Liwonde of Mangochi and Machinga, respectively, broken marriages as well as poverty are among some major reasons that are exposing girls to teenage pregnancies.
“Most of the girls are being raised by their mothers who have been divorced. In other cases, the children are being raised in polygamous families where there is limited support from both parents. This leaves the girls with no option but to get married,” Liwonde says.
On his part, Lulanga says as traditional leaders, they are trying their best to report cases of teenage pregnancies to authorities for action although some parents choose to hide such issues.
“As a community, we established bylaws which prohibit and punish teenage pregnancies. If they occur, we fine parents and report the matters to police. But oftentimes, the cases drag and sometimes the cases are withdrawn for various reasons. Unfortunately that is where our mandate ends,” says Lulanga.
The traditional leader suggests the need for the police to work with hospital officials to report all cases of teen pregnancies that visit health centres for antenatal services.
However, there is dilemma that more women could stop going to hospital for antenatal attention if health officials start reporting to police cases of teenage pregnancies.
This points to the need to strengthen enforcement agencies and legislation just like Minister of Gender and Community Development Patricia Kaliati is suggesting.