Just for being female, thousands of girls in the country fail to progress in their education pursuit and those who were supposed to prop them up throw the ball out of their courts, SAM KALIMIRA writes.
Justina Kanyinji, 18, spends most of her time indoors. Now in her sixth month of pregnancy, she chose to cut down on her interaction with others except her mother Ketrina.
This reporter had to negotiate for at least two hours before being granted an opportunity to interview the girl.
She feels uncomfortable meeting people, especially fellow students, she confesses.
“I was in a relationship with a certain man who was supporting me financially. Unfortunately, he impregnated me. When I told him about my condition, he denied responsibility,” Justina said.
The expectant girl stays with her single mother around Bowe area in Kasungu North.
She has dropped out from Mwalawanyenje Community Day Secondary School, where she was in Form Three.
Justina is amongst 578 girls who got pregnant in a space of five months in Kasungu North which has Traditional Authorities (T/A) Chulu, Mphomwa, Nyanja and Chisinga.
A survey by Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) conducted in the Central Region district indicates that out of the 578 girls who got pregnant in a space of four months, 208 got married and have made a choice not to return to school.
Primary Education Advisor (PEA) for Mphomwa Teachers Development Centre (TDC) which is under Kasasanya Zone, Matimba Banda, agrees with the CCJP report, saying in 14 schools only around Bowe area, 36 girls and five boys got married.
He said the worst thing is that many girls that have been impregnated and dropped out of the school are between 13 and 17 years and that both parents and chiefs sanctioned such marriages.
“We need to sensitise the parents so that they should know the importance of education. We are saying this because some learners that have dropped out of school are less than 17 years old and the parents accept their marriages,” Banda said.
Kasungu District Social Welfare Officer, John Washali, agrees with the PEA and added that poverty is the main contributing factor.
Washali said according to the reports from Child Protection Workers, the majority of the girls chose to get married than to continue languishing in poverty with their parents.
“It is sad that last year during the same period the district registered 198 pregnancies that led to early marriages. Now that we have 573 cases, it is worrisome.
“Chiefs are not forming to by-laws to help them curb the malpractice. In some areas where the by-laws are there, enforcement becomes a problem,” Washali said.
He further said communities including chiefs are not aware of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act 2010 that stipulates clear guidelines on ensuring the welfare of a child.
But a CCJP Child Protection Officer T/A Chulu, Martha Kawaza, differs with Washali on the laws saying they report such incidences to the police but in most cases, they are not assisted.
“I was following up on a case in which a certain man was suspected to be sleeping with his own daughter. I reported the matter to the police, Social Welfare and chiefs. The chiefs at least helped but the police never took up the matter. That discourages us,” Kawaza said.
However, Kasungu Police Station Community Policing Coordinator, Malifa Kapindira, insisted that chiefs and parents do not report such cases to police.
Kapindira challenged that out of 573 cases of early marriages that have been recorded, only three were reported to them.
“To end early marriages, it needs collective efforts. Some chiefs, including parents, do not report cases where rights of children have been infringed on. They think they will bring animosity within the communities,” Kapindira said.
She then admitted that sometimes, the police fail to assist in time when such cases happen in hard-to-reach areas because of inadequate resources such as vehicles and fuel.
T/A Mphomwa neither accepts nor dismisses the accusations by the police.
“We think we should follow up with these children and withdraw them from their marriages. The problem is that the parents and their chiefs keep on hiding such cases. As a result, the name which is dented is that of us senior chiefs,” T/A Mphomwa said.
T/A Chulu agreed with Mphomwa, saying she once tried to follow up on cases of some children and managed to withdraw 36 girls. She said this was achieved after being trained on the rights of children and girls by Mzuzu Diocese CCJP.
On her part, Minister of Gender Patricia Kaliati says fighting child marriage and early pregnancies should be everyone’s responsibility.
She describes the fight as a continuous process and that therefore organisations that are into girls’ welfare but have their projects winding up should consider lobbying for extensions from their donors.
Mzuzu Diocese Director of Social Development, Isaac Ziba, said what is happening is evil and it needs serious interventions.
“We are in the peace and justice business. Where we see girls less than 18 years old getting married, we know there is evil. That is the reason we tried to put a platform on which different stakeholders can discuss how best we protect our children,” Ziba said.
But sometimes, according to education stakeholder, some children do not find the school environment conducive enough for learning.
Minister of Education, Agnes NyaLonje, recently said out of 80 percent of girls who enrol in primary schools, only 15 percent of the selected learners have access to secondary education.
NyaLonje said inadequate secondary schools is one of the contributing factors.
“In Rumphi District alone, recent assessments show that only half of learners who passed the examinations were selected to secondary schools. To make matters worse, only eight percent were selected to boarding secondary schools,” NyaLonje said.
According to Unicef, Malawi has the 12th highest prevalence rate of child marriage cases in the world.
In 2005 Malawi ratified the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, including Article 6 which sets the minimum age for marriage as 18.
The one million dollar question is if the country is doing little to make sure that girls continue with their education, what will their future be like?