Girls Empowerment Network (Genet) Malawi is a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) which seeks to advance the rights, status and well-being of marginalized girls and young women in Malawi. Genet empowers girls and young women to advocate for gender equality, justice, and social inclusion. Apart from being involved in national issues and interventions, Genet currently has specific projects in Blantyre, Chiradzulu, Mulanje and Mzimba districts. The NGO plans to extend to new districts in the near future as soon as funds allow.
Genet believes that encouraging the active participation and leadership of girls and young women in key issues can enable them to demonstrate their ability to make informed decisions for themselves, their families and their communities to ensure accelerated development at both the community level and on a national scale.
Genet-Malawi is a member of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership which brings together hundreds of non-governmental organizations from around the world to work towards eliminating child marriage, which is one of the critical issues faced by adolescent girls in Malawi.
For this reason, Genet believes it is critical to highlight some of the key issues that need to be integrated into Malawi’s everyday politics, particularly as the country gears up for the tripartite elections on May 20th, 2014.
1.Promoting girls’ education
Many years of advocacy, experience, activism and innovation by various stakeholders have proven that investing in girls' education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty and achieve a more prosperous nation. Educating girls equips them with the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to take control of their own future, and can benefit themselves, their families and their communities for decades. In this way, education for girls is a critical tool to ensure their empowerment and the achievement of their rights.
Therefore, if superficial discussion surrounding the issue (which has come to characterize Malawian politics) can be replaced by concrete strategies and early interventions, girls can be adequately supported to stay in school, delay pregnancy and promote their health an overall well-being. Educated girls offer a key pathway to the reduction of the Malawi’s staggering fertility rate (which currently stands at 5.7) as well as the high rate of maternal deaths.
They are also better equipped to protect themselves from malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and sexual exploitation. Currently, it is estimated that 9 out of 10 pregnant teenage girls in the world are married. However, if a girl completes her secondary education, her chances of becoming a teenage mother are reduced by 60%. Educated girls are therefore more likely to marry at a later age and have fewer children who are better nourished and healthier. In this way, educated girls are more likely to attain more meaningful and better paid work because educated girls help to build a skilled workforce needed to succeed in economic growth, thus creating new markets and new opportunities for growth.
The gender equivalence has not been reached in primary education at the expense of girls, and the gap in secondary education is significant. This gender gap in schools puts girls at a significantly disadvantaged position, such as that they are failing to attain the skills, knowledge and expertise necessary to advance to positions of high-level management and governance. Educating girls also tends to promote their meaningful participation in politics and public life. In this way, educated girls and women are also likely to voice their opinions and take an active role in leadership and decision-making processes.
Tragically, efforts to promote girls’ issues such as education in Malawi have traditionally suffered from a lack of political will as well as social discrimination and negative gender stereotyping. Girls' issues are deeply seated in entrenched attitudes and discriminatory societal institutions, hence political commitment at international and national levels can offer solutions that can trigger social change and provide necessary strategies aimed at empowering girls in Malawi.
2. Ending child marriage
In Malawi, there is a great deal of evidence in documentation which shows that child marriage condemns innocent girls to lives plagued by extreme poverty, cyclical gender-based violence, vulnerability to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, malnutrition, a lack of information as well as poor health. Girls who come from impoverished rural families are most vulnerable due to the role that economic stress plays in compelling guardians to force their children into early marriage.
In terms of health alone, first births carry special risks for both teen mothers and their children. The primary danger of early pregnancies is prolonged or obstructed labour, which can result complications such as obstetric fistulas, pregnancy-induces hypertension and even death for both the mother and the infant. In Malawi, child brides between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20 to 24.
Teen mothers are also at risk of severe psychological problems due to their tender age and immaturity which prevents them from being mentally equipped to effectively care for their babies’ physiological, emotional, and economic needs. At least six of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are directly affected by child marriages in Malawi. These include: Eradication of Extreme Poverty and Hunger, Achievement of Universal Primary Education, Promotion of Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, Reduction in Child Mortality, Improvement in Maternal Health, and Combating HIV/AIDS as well as Malaria and other diseases.
3.Reviewing the Marriage Age Bill
Marriages in Malawi occur in forms of traditional, legal or religious union. Traditional unions (such as forced and arranged marriages) are not recognised by the state, even though these unions are the primary source of most under-aged girls being married off, particularly in rural areas.
However, it is pathetic to note that even laws facilitate the violation of adolescent girls’ human rights in Malawi. The law in question is the Marriage Age Bill in Section 22 (7) of the Republic of Malawi Constitution which stipulates that “for people between the age of 15 and 18 years, a marriage shall only be entered into with the consent of their parents or guardians.”
This deplorable and detrimental law is extremely problematic as it brings about negative consequences in communities which are misguided by harmful cultural practices such as marrying off their under aged girls. In these communities, the onset of first menstruation among young girls is perceived to be an indicator of womanhood and thus a passport into marriage. In reality, girls that fall under the age of 18 are not mature or fully developed, either mentally or physically. Many of these girls who are forced to marry at the age of 15 are still in the lower classes of primary school, and are thus forced to drop out of school due to poverty, pregnancies and high absenteeism resulting in their falling behind.
Where poverty is acute (particularly in rural areas), marrying off a daughter in marriage allows parents to reduce family expenses by having one less person to feed, clothe and educate. In communities where a bride price is paid, it is welcome income for impoverished families. Many parents marry off their daughters because they feel it is in her best interest, as well as the best interest of the family. In this way, young girls are often married off with the intention of ending poverty. However, they have nothing to guarantee them of their social and economic independence, and often end up in deeper poverty.
It is estimated that about 50% of girls in Malawi marry before the age of 18, with roughly 9% marrying around the age of 15. This staggering statistic represents a continuum of violations that continue throughout a girl’s life and throughout generations, causing negative consequences to ripple out into communities and Malawi as a whole. For these reasons, we strongly urge for the Marriage Age Bill to be reviewed from the age 15 to 18.
Before the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, nearly every country including Malawi made a commitment to achieve equal rights for women and girls by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC).
Despite making this legal obligation to meet the commitment, Malawi still lags far behind in terms of issues related to adolescent girls and women. Worse still, manifestos by many political parties in the forthcoming tripartite election offer no hope or consideration for adolescent girls as far as issues which concern their health and overall well-being.
As a girl-centred Malawian NGO, we are appealing to political parties to integrate issues of adolescent girls into the heart of their strategic planning. Political parties must be reminded that adolescent girls factor critically into measuring issues related to national development such as poverty, economic prosperity, gender equality, maternal health and population.
It is for these reasons that adequately investing in the development of young girls and women will bear fruit for Malawi. With proper support, adequate education and sufficient resources, adolescent girls can be empowered to bring positive change to their lives as well as the lives of their communities and Malawi as a nation. It is estimated that every year of schooling increases a girl's individual earning power by 10–20%, while the return on secondary education is even higher, in the range of 15–25%.
According to UNFPA, education is important for everyone, but it is especially significant for girls and women. This is true not only because education is a vital entry point to other opportunities, but also because the educational achievements of girls and women can have significant benefits within the family, the community and across generations.
Once again, it must be noted that girls who are wholly supported to complete their education are more likely to marry at a later age and are more likely to have smaller and healthier families, hence effectively combating the negative consequences of the population boom. Educated women can recognize the importance of health care and know how to seek it for themselves and their children. Education can also help girls and women to know their rights and to gain confidence to claim them.
INVEST IN GIRLS NOW AND THE NATION WILL REAP COUNTLESS BENEFITS IN THE FUTURE!