By Yamikani Yapuwa:
Section 81 of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act offers protection to children from forced marriages or betrothal while Section 22 of the newly amended Constitution restricts any person under 18 from marrying.
Nonetheless, the law seems to be seldom enforced as girls as young as 14 years continue to be forced into child marriage.
Marita (not real name), 15, from Traditional Authority Zulu in Mchinji District, which borders Zambia to the western stretch and Mozambique on its south-west, was forced into sex last year by a 22-year-old man.
“I was in Standard Four when I met this man. He offered me K1,000 and took me to his house. He told me to lie down and had sex with me. I tried to call for help but he gagged me,” Marita says.
Later, Marita reported the matter to her mother who was apparently not helpful.
“My mother told me to keep quiet, saying that such things happen and that there was nothing strange,” she recalls, a tinge of regret lacing her tone.
Marita says she was later taken to the man to be his wife after falling pregnant from the forced sexual encounter.
“However, life was unbearable as my husband was always beating me up for no apparent reason to the extent of forcing me to go and till the land at night.
“One day, I went to work in the field and on my return home, I found that he had left home for Zambia. I left immediately for my mother’s house,” she laments.
Marita’s situation reflects the predicaments of many other girls who suffer in silence at the hands of older men whom they are forced to live with.
Joana (not her real name), 17, from the same area also married at 15 after falling pregnant.
Unlike Marita, Joana went to live with her husband on her own volition.
She has, however, been reunited with her parents following her withdrawal from the union through the More Than Brides: Marriage is No Child’s Play Project being implemented by Youth Net and Counselling (Yoneco).
Both Marita and Joana are now young mothers with the responsibility of fending for their little ones, a typical scenario of children bearing and looking after children.
The two premature mothers solely depend on piece work in others’ farms where they make ridges and earn K100 per ridge.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund Ending Child Marriage-Progress and Prospects 2012 Report, girls who marry and have children at a younger age are denied their childhood.
Retired child justice magistrate Esmie Tembenu says girls in early marriages are usually forced to behave like adults and take marriage and family responsibilities at an age where they are beginning to explore themselves.
“When they fail to perform due to their tender age, they are rebuked or abandoned by their husbands as the case with Marita. They are confined within the walls of their houses. Such girls cannot interact much with their parents and peers as well as neighbours,” Tembenu says.
Former Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare minister, Jean Kalilani, says girls in child marriages are more likely to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted infections than unmarried, sexually active girls of the same age.
Kalilani explains that the child brides have virtually no power to negotiate for safe sex with their husbands as compared to unmarried girls.
“Moreover, child marriages also endanger the lives of girls under 15 years who are five times more likely to die during childbirth than women in their 20s,” she says.
And journalist Mallick Mnela—who is among those fighting for the rights of children—stresses that child marriages should be treated as defilement because that is what it is.
“Child marriage is a crime and it has to be treated as such. In the event of an adult marrying a minor, that marriage is illegal and constitutes child abuse,” Mnela says.
He adds that child marriages and defilement are evils that need to be fought with heavy artillery.
Tembenu admits that the country has not done enough to prosecute men who defile or rape girls under the pretext of marriage due to lack of civic education coupled with entrenched cultural practices.
“For a court to convict a man who defiles or rapes a girl in disguise of marriage, the court needs consensual evidence. But the victims do not assist the prosecutors with strong evidence as they think and believe that there is nothing wrong out of ignorance,” Tembenu says.
She, therefore, stresses the need to sensitise parents who are ignorant of the evils of child marriage as well as prosecute and send perpetrators to jail if they continue marrying their children off.
On the other hand, Mnela underscores the significance of developing effective community-based initiatives where issues of child marriage would be tackled at area, village and household levels.
“In areas where governance structures like mother groups have been used, incidents of child marriage have been well managed. Whenever there is support from the community, there is a high likelihood of success,” Mnela says.
Meanwhile, Kalilani says government is committed to dealing with the problem by engaging parents, guardians and traditional leaders on the evils of forcing or allowing girls to go into marriage before their 18th birthday.
Malawi Police Service Spokesperson, James Kadadzera says law enforcers are working with traditional leaders in fighting child marriages.
“We have intensified awareness campaign in communities through messages that we put on the radio. We also conduct community policing meetings to make people aware that girls are not supposed to marry.
“Through these platforms, we also make people aware that sleeping with anyone who is below the age of 16 is defilement – an offence punishable by law,” Kadadzera says—Mana
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