At 16 years old, Silvia Mateyu thought she was ripe for a serious relationship tamed ‘promise to marry’ (PTM).
This was perpetuated by the pressure from among her peers who boasted to her about their romantic relationships.
Mateyu, who lives in Mangombo Village, Traditional Authority Nkanda in Mulanje, says she was in Standard Eight when she engaged in the PTM relationship with a then Form Four student of Chambe Secondary School in the district.
“He told me that our relationship would end in marriage. There was no need for us to abstain from sex. I agreed..,” she recalls.
Before long she was pregnant and the once worth PTM partner turned against her; he denied responsibility.
Mateyu was a laughing stock among her peers and the entire neighbourhood because of the premarital pregnancy.
“But despite their anger, my parents stood by me. They told me I was lucky to have both of them alive, so I was supposed to learn my lessons,” says Mateyu, the last born in a family of six children.
But it was not over yet. She had a very hard time to deliver her baby; she was in labour for some days.
Her body was not mature enough to carry a pregnancy. Mateyu had an episiotomy-vaginal incision made to enlarge opening in the late stages of labour to prevent tearing and facilitate the delivery.
Four months after she gave birth, she was still very unwell.
“I had persistent abdominal pain. Painkillers were no longer working…,” she says.
Mateyu adds: “At the hospital, I was told that I had a problem in my uterus and I had an emergency operation.”
She went back to school after 18 months and is now in Form One at Chambe Secondary School.
Mateyu looks so cute in her grey skirt and blue blouse uniform that it is hard to guess if she has a child.
Village Head Gibisoni in the same area says while Mateyu has her parents’ support as they are taking care of her child when she is in school, her counterparts in the same situation are suffering.
“In most cases, it’s the parents that are forcing young girls to get married to their own benefit. Poverty and greed is driving them to do this with the hope that the in-law will be supporting their families financially,” she suspects.
The village head says this has greatly contributed to high girl child school dropout rates in her area, saying: “This was prevalent at Nansato, Pasani and Nkanda primary schools, among others, where every year, almost 10 percent of the enrolled girls dropped out of school due to pregnancies.”
She says the child marriages are mostly done secretly because she introduced a goat fine for every parent who marries off her daughter.
This year, only one parent has paid a goat fine, says the village head, adding that a parent who has broken the law is supposed to pay money equivalent to a goat in the event that they have no goats.
She claims that if one pays a goat as fine, it is sold and the money raised is used for village development. If it is cash, it goes straight into that purpose.
“We have several committees that are raising awareness on the disadvantages of child marriage. We also have more than 20 peer educators that are engaging the youth in issues of sexual reproductive health and rights,” Village Head Gibisoni says.
But even though Gibisoni and other villages in Malawi would claim to have imposed fines on parents for child marriages, Malawi is still one of the countries with the highest rates of child marriages in the world.
United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) indicates that child marriage often compromises a girl’s development. This results in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupting a girl child’s schooling, limiting her opportunities for career and vocational advancement and placing her at an increased risk of domestic violence.
Unicef says child marriage also affects boys but to a lesser degree than girls.
Renowned gender activist Magret Ali says Malawi is still registering many cases of child marriage despite the international and local commitments because the issue has not been tackled from all aspects.
She feels other factors such as long distances to school, the environment and the attitudes about females in general are killing girl child education.
“There is no motivation for the girl child to go to school. The classroom settings are also not suitable as it is very hard for a girl child to always stand up to answer questions if they are seated on the floor,” she notes.
Ali points out that most child marriages are perpetuated by parents and guardians and there is a need to deal with the situation by empowering them with more information on the evils and effects of child marriage.
“Most of the times NGOs [non-governmental organisations] do a once-off campaign but I bet we could make a huge difference if we were to do say six months full-time campaign on this issue,” she suggests.
Programme Manager for African Network for Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) Malawi chapter Marie Vauban says gender inequality is the major reason for high child rates in Malawi.
“Girls are disadvantaged at just at home and in the entire society with very limited economic opportunities.
Education is seen as the most powerful tool in the fight against child marriages.”
“If girls stay longer in school, they improve their economic potential, and are statistically far less likely to marry young,” she says.
Vauban says this is one reason ANPPCAN is working on thinking future-keeping girls in school project aiming at helping Malawi to address the child marriage challenges and achieve international global goals.
This is an educational system approach programme which has already begun in Blantyre, Chikwawa and Mulanje districts, where it has managed to bring girls like Mateyu back to school after early pregnancy or child marriage.
The programme will soon be spreading to Salima, Mchinji, Kasungu, Nkhata Bay, Rumphi, Karonga and Mzimba districts.
But, still more, Malawi is yet to actively enforce the laws that are already in place to protect the girl child from early marriages such as the Marriage Divorce and Family Relations law which Malawi Parliament passed early last year.
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