By Alick Ponje:
A frail girl wobbles out of a delivery ward at Lulanga Health Centre in Traditional Authority Makanjira in Mangochi, wearing a slightly gratified countenance.
In her condition, it makes sense to be happy.
She has just given birth to a baby girl before ceasing to be a child herself according to the modified laws of Malawi.
At 17, Hadija Mdala, does not seem aware of the huge responsibility that is on her shoulders now, having dropped out of Standard Seven at Chongwe Primary School located in a village served by the health facility that is being weighed down by the ever-rising number of patients seeking medical attention there.
For now, that she has delivered without complications seems to be what matters most despite that her looks show that the labour discomforts have significantly bruised her ego.
More pain could be silently smouldering inside when she imagines the childhood joys that no longer accrue to her and the future that has crumbled in her eyes.
“I dropped out of school and got married in March this year. I had fallen pregnant and I had no choice but to get married,” Hadija explains.
At one point, she seems lost in deep reflection. A cool breeze that wafts past her lifts her wrapper and brings her attention back to the conversation that we are having.
She has been discharged just a day after delivery. Her tiny voice is the voice of a child, a young girl who would still find comfort in the bosom of her mother when things turn upside down for her.
As she sits under a dense mango tree at the health centre, she smiles insipidly in the course of our chat, waiting for her husband, a fellow teenager—not legally fit to marry—to take her away.
Together, they are beginning another life, with a child in a marriage that was fashioned, perhaps, because they missed something in their affair.
But child marriages and teenage pregnancies in this part of Malawi are nothing out of the ordinary, according to reports from healthcare workers and locals.
Hadija, herself, seems to find satisfaction in her ‘accidental’ marriage in the trend that many more girls her age, even younger, are dropping out of school to join their partners in unions they seem to understand very little about.
“Five or six girls in my village dropped out of school after falling pregnant this year. They got married. I know some who get pregnant at 12 years old,” she says, warily ignoring questions on whether she regrets that she fell pregnant and whether she would like to return to school one day.
It is only an older woman sitting close to the young mother who insists that she will return to school after her mind opens up to the reality of what married life means for teenagers who do not have practical means of sustaining themselves in this lakeshore stretch.
“Everything seems fine now. But in the course of her married life, she will obviously start thinking of going back to school,” the woman prefigures.
She could be right. She could be wrong.
We understand that while some young girls in Mangochi return to school after giving birth or after their marriages crumble, others choose to stick to the unions with pain and hopelessness, hopeful that by some stroke of fate, their situations would one day be fair.
Their partners become all they have.
Khadija’s husband is just like many other teenage boys who, apparently, after earning some money from their fishing business, decoy their girlfriends into unprotected sex and end up making them pregnant.
Accounts from more people in this flat lakeside section, where farming is most households’ major socio-economic activity, indicate that many of these children do not believe in guarding themselves from unintended pregnancies due to cultural leanings.
For others, it is sheer impassiveness to things that should matter in their lives.
“It is difficult to convince these young people to use condoms or other commodities that will protect them. It just does not feel right with them,” Kelly Mkandawire, a member of a neighbourhood security association in Makanjira’s Ntekete Village, says.
He admits that despite interventions by stakeholders, including his association, against child marriages and early pregnancies, more of these continue to happen.
Mkandawire is exasperated that some parents shove their children into early unions despite that they are being sensitised to laws which prohibit marriages before one’s 18th birthday.
“When we try to discourage them from forcing their children into early marriages, most parents tell us off and warn us against meddling in their family affairs,” he says, in a frustrated tone.
A case in point is Hadija’s: her parents forced her into the child union the moment they learnt that she was in the family way.
That it could be a mistake not to be compounded by another was preposterous to them and they pushed her away from their home, perhaps with an angry send-off sentiment that she had just got what she had sought.
“Parents need to change their mindsets just like the youth themselves. We cannot deny that children are having sex but they must sufficiently protect themselves,” Mkandawire says.
For those who are part of over 140,000 people in Lulanga Health Centre’s catchment area and are eligible of using products that will shield them from unwanted pregnancies, accessing the products is another challenge that saps their passion.
Some have to cover long distances to access the products at the facility only to find out that they are not there. They end up discarding the decisions.
“They are not sick, so once they come to a health facility and find that their preferred family planning commodity is not there, some simply give up,” Mangochi District Deputy Family Planning Coordinator Margret Nyalugwe concedes.
This, she says, coupled with misconceptions about family planning services, results in unintended pregnancies and, by extension, a rapidly growing population in a district which has one of the highest in the country.
The trend, which piles more pressure on already limited public resources, is not relenting, according to figures from the district’s labour wards.
“Problems like inadequate space, equipment and healthcare workers in our hospitals become common where population grows rapidly. This sometimes results in poor service delivery because one healthcare worker has to attend to many patients,” Nyalugwe says.
The bare plains and hills along the bumpy road after branching off from Mangochi-Chiponde Road also speak volumes about what a huge population can do to the environment.
What is now left of forests that were once dense are red crop fields which are also in need of restoration as erosion rages and rains disappear.
Nyalugwe is hopeful that, as various stakeholders such as Amref Health Africa gang up to improve access to and use of family planning products, among other interventions, significant change will be seen in the course of time.
But that will be ultimately possible if products that appeal to users most are readily available in the lakeshore district.
“Even though it is still a challenge, we are taking family planning products to various parts of the district to give a chance to those who need them to access them. We have to do this,” she says.
Perhaps, a consistent drive of the approach would save some children at risk of falling pregnant and being forced into early marriages.
It would also slow down the rapidly growing population of a district where poverty is prevalent and optimal social service delivery remains a big problem.
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