By Jessica Piec
Different stakeholders from Malawi have reached a consensus to bring an end to the vile of Child Marriage and harmful cultural practices which derail a girls' chance at attaining an education and negatively impacts her health and well-being.
The forceful harmony was made recently at a two-day Southern Region Symposium in the lake district of Mangochi and aimed at Ending Child Marriages in Malawi.
The regional symposium was organised by Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) in partnership with Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) with financial support from Hivos. It drew over 60 delegates comprised of religious leaders, senior Chiefs, Traditional Authorities, village heads, police officers, government ministry officials, social welfare officers, civil society organizations, members of the media as well as individuals from the private sector.
The aim was to provide a regional platform where stakeholders from various sectors could share their experiences and come up with strategies to bring an end to child marriages at both regional and district levels in Malawi.
Traditional leaders also called upon the government to push through a bill to change the marriage age from 15 to 21 in an effort to save girls from being forced into early marriages and to encourage their educational empowerment and ability to make informed decisions in their lives.
Emphasized was the stakeholders’ collective responsibility to abolish Child Marriage, while traditional leaders also called upon the government to speed up the review of the marriage age from 15 to 21 in an effort to save girls from being forced into early marriages and to encourage the completion of their education.
Child Marriage situation in Malawi
Currently, Child Marriage is a primary violation of girls’ human rights, which is increasingly becoming an alarm for Malawi because it is destroying many adolescent girls.
Statistics indicate that Malawi is one of the Southern Africa countries which are grappling with effects of early marriage which include increase in maternal deaths and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). It is estimated that 50% of girls marry before the age of 18; 9% are married by the time they reach the age of 15 and 20% of girls who are supposed to be in school, are not.
Marriages in Malawi occur in forms of tradition, legal or religious but tradition unions are not recognized by the state. Often, traditional marriages ignore the law since some of them are arranged or forced ones that involve under aged girls.
Child Marriages and childbearing are deeply embedded in harmful cultural practices. And archaic marriage laws are also facilitating them with the disregard of young woman’s life and future.
Currently, Section 22 (7) of the Republic of Malawi Constitution says 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.
As a result, this compels many communities that are misguided by cultural norms, to marry off their girls.
It is against this atrocious background that stakeholders have committed themselves to push for policies that are aimed at protecting girls fully.
November 16, Blantyre
Staring a 14-year old Christina Asima from a distance, one could have impression that she is just one of those ordinary girls in the area of senior chief (S/C) Chitera in Chiradzulu. Yet her touching story starts with such a closer look at her, which suddenly engulfs you into emotional sorrow because of her malnourished health.
Her eight-month old baby keeps on crying on her back but she cannot breast-feed her because there is no milk in her breasts. Anyway, she just fishes them out of her dirt and regular blue-blouse for the purposes of entertaining the child.
By the time Christina starts narrating her story; watch out your fragile tear ducts because you may liberate more tears than she does because of grief.
The moment she permits you to see where she calls her house, you are forced to fish out whatever amount of money is in your pocket angive to her. This is apart from the numerous thoughts of how you wished you were a millionaire in order to render a right away support to her.
It does not matter if you have not set a foundation of your own house yet, but emotions will compel you to contribute to the house project of this poor girl because her’s was demolished by heavy rains last season. She currently occupies a borrowed house from one of her relations, which is also in dilapidated state, signalling another disaster this rainy season.
Don’t ask Christina why she does not lock her house because you will be shocked to see for yourself that the door of her house is a complete mess.
“When I go out, I don’t bother to lock my house because it has no security devices. Even if I lock it, I have no valuable items that I fear people can steal from me. I only fear my life and that of my child at night,” says Christina.
Entering Christina’s house, one is awe-stricken whether it is habitat for a human being or animal which does not deserve any Human Right. A worn out green pail and two plates, which were left behind by her mother before she deserted her, sat separately in a dust-ridded floor.
She says she uses the similar bucket for bathing, drawing water and storing drinking water.
You cannot call the other space of her house “bedroom” because there is no such space where a bed can fit. There is even no mat in such a dim room whose sole window is fixed permanently. What is found there are dirt pieces of sack and wrapper, which serve as Christina’s beddings.
“Of course yes, those are our beddings together with my son. I cannot afford a proper mat and blanket,” says Christina, pointing at the dirty sack and wrapper.
She says she bought the wrapper using the money she accumulated after doing a piece work in her village.
But how did she found herself in such risk situation?
“It all started when the marriage of my mother and father broke around 2011. My father left for Mangochi, leaving behind my mother and five children behind (including me). As time passed, my mother found another man who expressed interest to a marry her. But unfortunately the man did not want to look after us (children). Therefore, my mother just eloped with him to Blantyre, leaving us (children) behind. Since then I automatically became a bread winner for the family,” she says.
Child abuse is more than rape, bruises or broken bones. While physical abuse is shocking due to the scars it leaves, not all child abuse is as obvious. Ignoring children’s needs, putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations, or making a child feel worthless or stupid are also child abuse. So, did Christian together with her younger siblings, experienced emotional agony as they were deserted by their parents in the village called Saenda in Chitera.
Although she has only attained a teenager two years ago, Christina does the work of an adult. She does piece works such as watering mud for moulding bricks and clear maize fields in her area in order to earn a living. She acknowledges that she was exposed to child labour, premarital sex, among other perils. This resulted her into falling pregnant and drop out of school.
“In the process, I met a man who promised to marry and help me taking care of my siblings. But soon after he impregnated me he refused the responsibility and disappeared. I was forced to drop out of school in standard eight,” she recalls.
She says her condition compelled her to seek help from the police and social welfare office which helped to trace her mother in Blantyre. When the whereabouts of the mother was detected, she accepted to take the custody of the other three children whom Christina managed to escort to Blantyre where the mother had settled. But she was forced to return to the village where she kept on staying independently.
Christina gave birth to a bouncing baby boy in January this year at Chiradzulu district hospital through a caesarean section. And since then she has been fending for her child singlehandedly.
“It has been a chaotic journey for me to be where I am today with my child. Only God knows how I have managed to reach this far without proper nappies, clothes, food and shelter. There was time I would feel bad but God whispered to me hold on till this day. I thank Him for being faithful throughout my life,” says Christina.
In his article ‘Thousands of Malawian teenage girls die whilst giving birth’ which appeared on http://www.streetnewsservice.org, Henry Kijimwana Mhango writes that “teenage pregnancies are on the rise in Malawi as dire poverty drives young girls into both prostitution and problematic relationships with older men.”
The article further quotes Dr. Isabera Msisi, the former president of the Nurses and Midwives Organisation in Malawi as saying: "Every two hours in Malawi we are losing a woman in relation to maternal cause and the very unfortunate thing is that teenage girls are taking the lead. Because their bodies are not fully developed to give birth, many die of severe bleeding during delivery."
Childbearing among adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa remains high – the adolescent
fertility rate is 108 births per 1000 girls aged 15-19 in the region, compared to 73 in South Asia, and 72 in Latin America and the Caribbean (World Bank, 2010).
Correspondingly, contraceptive use among 15-19 year old girls is low – only 21% of married girls who want to avoid pregnancy, and just 41% of unmarried sexually active girls who want to avoid pregnancy are using a modern contraceptive method (Guttmacher Institute and IPPF, 2010).
According to the most recent Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, 60% of females aged 20-24 had sex by the age of 18, and 15% of females 15-19 had had sex in the past year. Of currently sexually active unmarried 15-19 year old girls, only half had ever used a modern method of contraception, and about a third were currently using a modern method, almost exclusively the male condom.
A 14-year old Christian says this year she has clocked three years of independent and traumatic life. But vowed to fight for both her education and that of her son.
“I want to go back to school and fight for the bright future of my child. I want him to bring change in my community,” she says.
Social Welfare Officer for Chitera area Erick Moyenda acknowledged Christiana’s case, adding investigations and necessary steps were taken to connect her (together with other children) with her parents.
“We are aware of Christina’s case and we made all the efforts to connect her with her mother who has since taken the custody of her other three children whom were left with her. But as Social Welfare office we are making ensure to encourage her community to realise its role towards her upbringing. This is the case because the school bursary which our office offers starts at secondary school level,” says Moyenda.
He says that his office has since connected Christina with Girls Empowerment Network (Genet Malawi), a local NGO which seeks to protect the rights and uplift the status and well-being of girls in the country.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel that the lost dreams of the 14-year old Christina and other girls who are heading their families, will be re-possessed following the intervention by Genet Malawi which seeks to empower vulnerable young women.
“There are some young women and girls who are heading families but have no instant plans to go back to school. So, we want to target them with some expertise and capital for them to start small scale businesses so that they become economically independent,” says Mercy Mituka, Coordinator for Genet Malawi.
She says there two types of Village Savings Loan (VSL) which her organisation has introduced in the area of Chitera as one way of fighting the crisis of child marriage and other Human Rights violence faced by girls and young women in the area.
Women’s economic empowerment: breaking the roots of gender based violence in Malawi
November 16, 2013, Blantyre.
Agnes Filimoni from Mtembo village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chitera in Chiradzulu says her husband now regards her as impolite woman simply because she is economically empowered and able to meet some of the basic needs at her household level. Thanks to financial support from African Women Development Fund, which has enabled Girls Empowerment Network (GENET Malawi) to introduce Village Savings Loan (VSL) for vulnerable young women in Agnes’s area.
“I don’t understand the way some men were born and raised up. When you are a house wife, they accuse of being a mere goalkeeper who just receives and eat food in the house. And when you are empowered, they still have the guts to accuse you of being rude and pompous. So, which is which?” wondered Agnes during the Young Women In Business review meeting held at T/A Chitera headquarters on October 18, 2013.
The meeting was convened by GENET Malawi and aimed at monitoring and evaluating the VSL scheme, which was initiated around July and August this year. The economic empowerment scheme is one of many interventions aimed at reducing rural women’s vulnerability to social and economic hardships which fuel Child Marriage and other Human Rights violations faced by young women and girls in T/A Chitera.
Agnes, who is a mother of three, said for many year she has been inactive hence heavily depending on her polygamous husband in her family. But now, the situation has improved since she accessed a loan from the VSL economic empowerment scheme.
“I was unable to contribute anything towards my family for survival to the extent that I was even asking K20 (1 cent) meant for a tablet of soap or salt from my husband. And this automatically made him feel very important and someone we cannot do without in the house.
It reached to the extent that the fate of my entire family was tied to his personal decisions. For example, it was up to him to leave or not to leave food in the house and nobody would question why because he was the only breadwinner. But since four months ago, my life had been transformed,” recalled Agnes.
Across the world, millions of women continue to live in conditions of acute poverty, struggling to cope with the devastating impact of HIV/Aids, malnutrition and other challenges while trying to make their ends meet when they are unemployed. Too many are without sources of income, houses, land, water, electricity and affordable health care.
Every day, as a result of poverty, thousands of women are exposed to gender based violence in Malawi. They hardly make end meets on their own hence heavily relying on their husbands. This put women in an awkward situation whereby they are regarded as if they were born purely to worship men.
The alarming trend is the result of diverse factors such as deep-seated gender inequalities that lead the society to value men most over women. The negative notion is stretched to families where men are considered to be bread winners or decision-makers, rendering women useless in society.
Even if women have landed on well-paying jobs or lucrative business, the mindset is that they are weak and cannot take leadership roles be it in a family, organisation or government. The situation is worse in rural areas of Malawi where traditional values and beliefs are underlying and restrict women to household chores only such as cooking for their families.
Women and children become more vulnerable to societal ills when their sole bread winners (husbands/fathers), whom they depend on heavily, passes on. The link between persistent violence against women and girls and HIV/Aids pandemic in the context of deep poverty continues to be a huge challenge.
But for young women in Chitera, there seems to be hope at the end of the tunnel following the implementation of the Socio-economic empowerment scheme of VSL by GENET Malawi with funding from the African Women Development Fund.
Five months down the line, since Agnes, one of many young women in Chitera, embarked on a small-scale business of selling locally made washing baskets; her life is changing for better.
“The fact that I am now able to meet some of the needs in the house, my husband thinks I am becoming rude and don’t want to listen to him. He still wants me to be a kind of a wife whom he was used to see crying for help from him every time. But I don’t blame him because this is a general problem to do with perception among many men and society which undervalues women,” said Agnes.
She acknowledged that there were several forces such as a harsh treatment from men, “push her down syndrome” that women face in the process of graduating from the captive of gender based violence to empowerment.
Agnes is among 40 young women who accessed business loans from the VSL program in T/A Chitera.
According to Senior Chief Chitera, the 40 young women have been put into two groups namely; Tikondane and Titukulane VSLs which received a matching grant of K500, 000 each from GENET Malawi.
Through GENET Malawi, the Senior Chief hailed African Women Development Fund for the socio-economic empowerment scheme, which she said is transforming the lives of rural women in her area.
“If truth be told, women are becoming wiser each passing day because of the different initiatives that NGO GENET Malawi are implementing in my area. I can attest that more women are now conversant with issues of Human Rights than it was four years ago and cases of gender based violence have drastically reduced.
For example, the socio-economic empowerment program has seen young women graduating into responsible citizens in my community. And I personally thank African Women Development Fund for transforming my area through GENET Malawi,” said Chitera.
Baseline Survey conducted by GENET Malawi in 2010 in the area of Chitera indicated that poverty was one of the factors that encourage many households to marry off their daughters whom they believe that they create a burden of responsibility for them.
“The NGO observed that unless women are empowered both socially and economically, the plague of Child Marriage including other cases of Human Rights abuse will continue happening in Chitera. Unlike a suppressed woman in society, an empowered one is likely to send her children including girls to school and prevent them from Child Marriage. She also knows the benefits of investing in a girl child. Hence, the socio-economic empowerment program,” said Faith Phiri, GENET Malawi Executive Director.
According to Phiri, to be a girl and female is bad enough in the midst of poverty, but it is often better when young women have access to income in order to keep them going.
By Diane Fender, Girls’ Globe Blogger
During the Women Deliver Conference, I had the pleasure of meeting the amazing and dedicated team. Girls Not Brides’ current project – the creation of an anti-child marriage Coalition - offers like-minded organizations an opportunity to participate in a global movement by sharing information and best practices.
“An educated Malawian girl has high earning potential, enjoys good health, she is less likely to marry as a teenager, has fewer children, less likely to be a victim of gender based violence, more likely to educate her children and be productive to the community and the country at large.”
By creating a platform that allows young advocates to speak out against child marriage, GENET Malawi is building a powerful network of young change agents. At only thirteen years old, Emmanuella Manjolo serves as one of its many impressive youth advocates. Julia Wiklander and I had the privilege of sitting down with Emmanuella at the Women Deliver Conference.
When asked about the importance of engaging youth in the fight to end child marriage, Emmanuella shared:
“It is essential to educate young girls about their rights as well as motivate them to become advocates.”
Crediting with empowering her to access her own education and training, Emmanuella hopes that people will unite in the fight to end child marriage in Malawi. Emmanuella, a courageous young woman, strongly represents how youth can be a force for good in the global effort to end child marriage.
SIMPLY having access to sustainable sanitary pads, the school attendance of many adolescent girls in some rural primary schools of Mulanje and Blantyre is improving. The ‘Keeping Girls in School 100%’ (KGS) project launched by one of the local Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Girls Empowerment Network (Genet Malawi), has inspired many including a 14-year old Bertha Navaya from Saluti village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kapeni in Blantyre to go to school regularly even when she is menstruating.
Bertha says it is now reasonable for her to say that the distribution of sustainable sanitary pads had made a substantial contribution to the support for her stay in school.
“At first, I was absconding classes when menstruating, fearing the unknown. But now I am assured of completing at lease my primary education since the introduction of the sustainable sanitary pads and training in menstrual hygiene management,” she says.
Genet Malawi exists to promote and advocate for socioeconomic and emotional wellbeing of adolescent girls and young women by influencing positive social change and build girls leadership to improve their quality of lives. The NGO currently produces the sustainable sanitary pads which are freely distributed to vulnerable girls. The pads are coupled with menstrual hygiene management which are both helping to keep adolescent girls in school.
The sustainable sanitary pads are made of cotton layers with a water proof layer at the bottom in order to guarantee reasonable absorbing capacity. A package contains 4 pads and a panty with small hooks to keep the pads in place. These are packaged in an attractive small bag.
And the washing is straight forward: rinse in cold water, wash with soap in lukewarm water, rinse again and hang to dry.
There is one other reason for the introduction of sustainable sanitary pads which is an environmentally one: Non-sustainable sanitary pads represent a waste problem, they cannot be recycled and they are poisonous towards the environment because of the plastic component.
In a situation where 1/3 of the population uses some 10 sanitary pads a month, this translates into a substantial mountain of waste that needs to be dealt with, according to Genet Malawi.
Bertha’s deputy head teacher at Lunzu Catholic primary school Mercy Kazembe says majority of Adolescent girls do not go to school when menstruating due to reasons ranging from culture to lack of sanitary facilities and menstrual hygiene management.
This eventually leads to a sharp increase in dropout rates among girls after 4, 5 and 6 years of primary education.
“There are many reasons for the increased cases of Adolescent girls’ absenteeism and dropping out of school but one is that girls tend to stay at home when menstruating, missing 4 or five days out of every school month,” says Kazembe.
According, to a 2012 Water Aid report entitled “School menstrual hygiene management in Malawi: More than toilets”, lack of separate and adequate sanitation and washing facilities in schools also discourages girls from attending school, particularly during menstruation, affecting their school performance and increasing their risk of dropping out.
Menstrual hygiene issues were accountable for 12 to 36 days of absence annually per girl. When their cloths leaked at school, most girls left class to change, and then returned to lessons. However, 11% went home and stayed home and 7% said they didn’t come to school at all on heavy days, according to Save the Children.
The UK Department for International Development’s (DFID) toilet programme in Malawi is to facilitate achievement of Millennium Development Goal 3 (UN MDG, 2010), as educated young women can then contribute to other development goals. To promote girls’ education, after puberty, however, it takes more than exercise books and toilets. They also need materials like sustainable sanitary pads and critical information on how to cope with menstruation.
In Malawi, the introduction of free primary education in 1994 has seen a large increase in the number of pupils going to school but this increase in access has also brought about major infrastructure problems and a big decline in quality. This mostly impinges on poor adolescent girls.
“For most girls in rural areas, menstruation is connected with a number of mistaken beliefs, which brings about negative results on their lives and education. The reason why a girl-child stops going to school during menstruation is the pre-conceived myths and misconception about this natural event. But we want to break such diabolical beliefs through ‘Keeping Girls in School 100%’ project , which entails an improved menstrual hygiene management and free sanitary pads,” says Faith Phiri, executive director of Genet Malawi.
“Keeping Girls in School 100%” currently benefits about 1000 adolescent girls from 15 rural primary schools of Blantyre and Mulanje. It’s pilot phase has been implemented with financial support from the Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development Development Aid (Cord Aid) from the Netherlands and Carlsberg Malawi Limited, a local beverages company.
Economic benefits of Sustainable sanitary pads
In a bid to complement Malawi government’s efforts to improving socio-economic status of youths through increased income, Genet Malawi employed a number of vulnerable girls and young women to be producing the sustainable sanitary pads.
The tailoring-based one year project seeks to empower over 100 vulnerable girls through the social entrepreneurship program which is aimed at improving their sustainable livelihoods in order to reduce their vulnerability to abuse and violence.
Currently, the project has a cohort of 10, which is undergoing training in making sanitary pads at Genet Malawi offices in Blantyre.
“Upon the completion of the training, beneficiaries will be put into groups of three that will receive a brand-new sewing machine for making sustainable sanitary pads. The NGO will be buying the pads from the girls in order to boost their business and economic status,” says Phiri.
She describes entrepreneurship skills as crucial to girls and young women that were staying idle in society as a result of soaring unemployment rate and imbalanced opportunities to access education and business opportunities.
According to 2008 Population Housing Census, 40 percent of Malawi’s 13.1 million populations are persons aged 10 to 29 (youth). Although youth comprise a significant share of the population, they lack basic opportunities that could enable them develop their full potential.
It is estimated that 45 percent of the population live below the poverty line and 17 percent being ultra poor. Further studies have shown that Malawi’s employment sector cannot ac-accommodate all employable youth especially girls. According to the Welfare Monitoring Survey (WMS2006), the national labour participation rate among youth aged 15-29 was nine percent with more females (10 percent) than males (eight percent).
The formal employment sector was only able to create about 30,000 jobs per year against the backdrop of 300,000 (both educated and semi-educated population) of new entrants into the job market. All the time, youth are completing their education with very little prospect of securing a job or engaging in entrepreneurship activities. This is resulting in them marrying early, becoming prostitutes, thugs and secret girl friends to married people or sugar daddies, putting their lives in jeopardy.
Phiri trusts that the social entrepreneurship project will tremendously improve living standards of young women and girls.
She adds that Genet Malawi NGO has embarked on a process of introducing the sanitary pads to interested donors and organisations working on girls’ education in order to attract funding for increased production and free distribution of the much-sought material in order to promote vulnerable girls’ education in Malawi.
In a bid to improve vulnerable girls’ self-confidence, self-control, and self-motivation, Girls Empowerment Network (GENET Malawi) will hold a first ever girls’ sports conference scheduled for September 4 and 5 at Blantyre Youth Centre (BYC) from 9am to 4pm.
Roxanne Ma is GENET Malawi’s Gender Program Officer and said the event will massively benefit young women and girls who will partake in it.
“Basically, the program seeks to empower girls and young women for them to get valuable information about diverse issues such as rights, violence and abuse. At the same time, it will develop their self-importance in society and sense of self-reliance over critical choices in life,” said Roxanne.
The sports conference will create a platform for girls and young women to share experiences, develop healthy relationships, avoid risky situations, stay in school, and avoid early marriages and abuse, among other things.
“Through the use of storytelling and interactive sports, this conference will provide girls with a unique opportunity to explore new skills, form new relationships and a new social support network, and feel safe and empowered to share their experiences and challenges as young adolescent girls from different communities,” she said.
Moreover, with the presence of Members of Parliament (MPs) and other strong female role models at the conference, girls will become inspired to discover their own strength, leadership abilities and potential to become strong and independent women.
The girls’ sports conference is also expected to develop role models who will ultimately become agents of social change in the communities they live. This is apart from engaging them in an unconventional and often exclusionary space.
The theme of the conference is: “Girls in Action: Empowering Adolescent Girls to be Agents of Social Change”. It underscores the role of girls on the fight against diverse social ills such as child marriage.
GENET Malawi’s approach has not only taken sports as spare time activity but as a tool that needs effort and skills to prepare vulnerable girls into weapons for development while advancing their human rights.
According to the United Nations (UN), when girls participate in sports they are more likely to attend school and participate in society. When women and girls can walk on the playing field, they are more likely to step into the classroom, the boardroom, and step out as leaders in society.
Learning from her touching story, eyes and body language, it does not need a psychologist to evaluate the current needs of a teenager Maria Nkomera who hails from Saenda village in the area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Chitera in Chiradzulu district.
She wants to go back to school and start from where she stopped in 2011 because of unwanted pregnancy, which forced her into early marriage. She says she wants to become a nurse and help to lessen the suffering of her family.
“I dropped out of school in standard 8 as a result of pregnancy. I was impregnated by a fellow standard 8 pupil, a condition which interrupted my dream to become a nurse” recalls Maria.
She reveals that she became vulnerable in 2006 after the death of her mother.
“Since then my father moved to Blantyre where he stays alone. Being female children, it was deemed to be an improper thing among our relations for us to follow him. Hence I remained in the village with my elder sister who has been looking after me until I fell pregnant,” says Maria.
However, looking at the burden which was already in her family, with her sister (a local hair dresser) being a breadwinner, Maria had a feeling that the coming of her baby would worsen the situation hence decided to leave and marry her boyfriend..
In Malawi, it is unlikely for a girl to become pregnant and remain in her parents’ house hence many girls are automatically forced into early or unplanned marriages. Many households also prefer to banish their impregnated girls to the village in order to avoid the wrath of being ridiculed by the neighbourhood.
Maria, however, says marrying early was the worst decision she had ever conceived in her life because she faced problems worse than she imagined. She cites numerous fights with her husband’s secret girlfriends and lack of proper care as supreme examples of tribulations that haunted her life.
“Now and again, I was picking fights with my husband’s girlfriends. He was also coming home during odd hours, a development which was causing pain, squabbles and physical fights whenever I ask him about this.
Worse still, we were all relying on her mother to feed us,” says Maria.
She says the myriad problems emanating from the Child Marriage coupled with the special visit by Girls Empowerment Network’s (GENET-Malawi) rural committee on fight against Child Marriage, her perception towards her life and future began to change.
“I started visualizing a bright future when committee members of Girls Empowerment Network visited and encouraged me about the importance of education over Child Marriage. Then after time, I decided to dump marriage and return to my sister who gladly welcomed me back into her house,” says Maria.
Maria is now planning to go back to school. There is hope that her life and dreams will be refreshed following Girls Empowerment Network’s (GENET-Malawi) intervention which is aimed at empowering survivors of Child Marriage like her in her area.
“We want to turn survivors of Child Marriage into effective models and tools that will help to fight the crisis. The programme stands to benefit over 2000 school-going girls who will be reached with information on the dangers of Child Marriage through awareness campaigns,” says Faith Phiri, Executive Director of GENET-Malawi.
Phiri says the survivors of the Child Marriage, which are currently six in total, will be equipped with the necessary skills of public speaking and leadership in order to serve as effective models to other girls.
ØCourt orders Chief to pay fine of K5, 000 (about U$$15) per month.
ØGENET-Malawi decries judgement
ØGirl says the Chief promised to marry her
Chiradzulu district’s Mbulumbudzi Magistrate’s Court recently ordered Wisdom John, the stand-in Group Village Headman (GVH) Chitera from the area of Senior Chief Chitera in the district to pay fine for impregnating a standard 7 girl.
According to the court order, the Chief will be paying a meagre K5, 000 (about U$$15) every month for the pregnancy maintenance of the teenager.
Girls Empowerment Network (GENET-Malawi), which works in the areas of advancing the rights, social and economic status of girls and young women through its “Stop Child Marriage” campaign in the area of Senior Chief Chitera, took a leading role to ensure that justice prevailed in the scandal.
However, the NGO was not contented with the judgement, describing it as ‘very weak’ to deter would-be offenders of Child pregnancy or Marriage.
An inquiry into the matter indicated that the victim and the perpetrator were direct cousins, who were grandchildren of Senior Chief Chitera and were living under one roof (in Senior Chief Chitera’s house). But when the girl became pregnant, she was chased away from the home, leaving the male counterpart behind.
Girls Empowerment Network (ENET-Malawi) led the process of formulating community by-laws in Senior Chief Chitera as one way of fighting Human Rights abuse against girls and young women such as forced Child Marriage. And through their Senior Chief Chitera, all chiefs in the area, including the perpetrator of the pregnancy (stand-in Group Village Headman Chitera), showed commitment towards the cause by signing the document.
However, the Group Village Headman’s deplorable behaviour astounded many people including chiefs and NGOs working in the area.
One thing for sure was that communities, including other chiefs, were afraid to take up the pregnancy issue since it was involving a high family of Senior Chief Chitera. Culturally, it was also deemed an abomination to confront their Senior Chief, hence the intervention of Girls Empowerment Network (GENET-Malawi), which called for a fruitful meeting with the Senior Chief.
The Senior Chief told the NGO that she had immediately dethroned the stand-in Group Village Headman (GVH) Wisdom John, the perpetrator of the girls’ pregnancy, in order to demonstrate her area’s commitment towards fighting the crisis of Child Marriage, which was rampant.
In her bold statement, Senior Chief Chitera was quoted as saying: “The chief who has committed this offence is my grandson but I cannot condone such behaviour in my own house. Our family needs to be exemplary at all times. I committed myself to protecting girl-child rights in my area by signing the community by-laws, so justice must prevail including to those in my own house.”
Senior Chief Chitera added that she did not want development in her area to be affected by the act of nepotism.
“You may wish to tell the nation that I, chief Chitera is development-conscious. It is my wish to see all kinds of development happening in my area so that majority of people should benefit. It is worrisome when someone wants to tarnish the image of my area, even if he or she is my relation,” said the chief.
But despite her assertion, the pregnancy scandal was characterised by drama, nepotism and dishonest if the way it was handled was anything to go by. For example, the victim experienced the worst trauma when it was exposed that she was the only one who was chased away from the Senior Chief’s home.
However, when the victim felt she was being scorned by the family she went to Namadzi police station to launch an official complaint. Then the matter was referred to Mbulumbuzi Magistrate’s Court, which later summoned both Senior Chief Chitera and the perpetrator of the teen girl’s pregnancy Wisdom John, the stand-in Group Village Headman Chitera.
When the matter first appeared before the Magistrate’s court, it was granted a fair trial of outer court settlement since the court heard that it was involving cousins. However, in their dialogue in the village, the families were advised to leave out Senior Chief Chitera who was seemingly interfering so much in the case.
At this stage, Girls Empowerment Network (GENET-Malawi) was tasked by the court to report on the proceedings of the matter at the family level. However, when the family dialogue was convened in Chitera, the tempers of the two families flared when the perpetrator stuck to his guns that he would not marry the victim as demanded by the side of the victim.
“He (the Chief) promised to marry me, so I just want him to walk the talk because the family is giving me cold shoulder now if at all I am a stranger or the most sinful person. We should start living together as a wife and husband because since our gogo (grandmother Senior Chief Chitera) only kicked me out of her house, my life is not the same,” said the girl.
As per court’s order, Girls Empowerment Network (GENET-Malawi) reported back to the court about the family dialogue, which nearly ended up in fight since the two families failed to reach a consensus on the way forward. Then Mbulumbudzi Magistrate’s Court was left with no choice but to set new date for the pregnancy case to resume in court where the chief was slapped with a fine.
The Court also instructed both the complainant and the defendant (Chief) to report to Mbulumbudzi Magistrate’s Court once the baby is born for the purposes of reviewing the maintenance fees.
However, Girls Empowerment Network (GENET-Malawi) decried the judgement, saying K5, 000 (about U$$15) per month was not only enough to discourage perpetrators of Child pregnancies and marriages, but also mockery to be maintenance fee for a pregnancy.
“Generally, laws in Malawi are weak thus failing to adequately protect its citizens especially girls who continue to be abused for days on end. What can U$$15 do to a person in a month? This is mockery,” said GENET-Malawi Executive Director Faith Phiri.
She said the scale of Child Marriage and pregnancy in Malawi continues to be enormous because laws also facilitate the abuse. She cited weak penalties that court imposes on perpetrators and the Marriage Age bill, which currently allows a girl to marry at the age of 15 and 16 in Malawi, as classic examples of ‘legal’ girl-child abuse in Malawi.
FACTS ABOUT CHILD MARRIAGE AND PREGNANCY:
ØChild pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for women ages 15 to 19 because younger girls are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.
ØChild brides are highly exposed to HIV/Aids, Domestic Violence because they often marry older men.
ØChild brides often suffer severe depression, hopelessness and helplessness.
ØChild brides have poor levels of education and business skills, limiting their chances social and economic independence for survival.
In its quest to eradicating the crisis of Child Marriage in the country, a local Non-Governmental Organization which works to advance the rights of girls and young women Girls Empowerment Network (GENET-Malawi) has rescued six girls from early marriage in the area on Traditional Authority (T/A) Chitera in Chiradzulu district.
This was revealed at the NGO’s meeting with the six survivors of child marriage in T/A Chitera, recently, which was aimed at drilling them.
“We are pleased to report that we had a successful meeting with a total of six survivors of Child Marriage from different villages within T/A Chitera. The number is likely to increase because our rural committees on the fight against child marriage were yet to give us final reports on other two cases,” said Mercy Mituka, Coordinator for GENET-Malawi.
She attributed the success story to mutual working relationship with the communities of T/A Chitera in their organisation’s project called “Stop Child Marriage”, which was implemented in the area.
She said her organisation was devising a new programme which seeks to turn the survivors of the child marriage into effective models and tools that will help to fight the crisis.
“We are planning to equip the six survivors with the necessary skills of public speaking and leadership in order to prepare them into effective models to other girls. The programme stands to benefit over 2000 school-going girls who will be reached with information on the dangers of Child Marriage through awareness campaigns,” said Mituka.
According to GENET-Malawi, most of the survivors of the child marriage dropped out of school in Standard eight and became child brides. They were reportedly to have fallen prey to Child Marriage due to reasons ranging from unwanted pregnancies (which occurred at school) and poverty.
“Our findings indicate that most of the survivors became pregnant while in school. Therefore, our campaign seeks to intensify Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights campaign to rural schools in order to raise awareness on the dangers of pre-marital sex, relationships and unwanted pregnancies,” said Mituka.
Asked about poverty as a leading cause of girls’ vulnerability in rural areas, Mituka said GENET-Malawi had introduced Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) in T/A Chitera as away of fight child marriage.
One of the survivors of child marriage Maria Nkomera, who hails from Saenda village in T /A Chitera, said she was set to go back school and start from where she stopped in 2011.
“I dropped out of school in standard 8 as a result of pregnancy. I was impregnated by a fellow standard 8 pupil, a condition which interrupted my dream to become a nurse” said Maria, adding she was set to be used by GENET-Malawi as an effective campaigner of girls’ rights in her community.
SIMPLY having access to sanitary pads, the school attendance of so many Adolescent girls is improving in rural areas of Malawi. The ‘Keeping Girls in School 100%’ (KGS) project launched by Girls Empowerment Network (Genet-Malawi) has inspired many girls including a 14-year old Bertha Navaya from Saluti village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kapeni in Blantyre to go to school regularly even when she is menstruating.
KGS uses both the power of sustainable sanitary pads and menstrual hygiene practices lessons to keep Adolescent girls in school. And the project had been implemented as a result of research which shows soaring absenteeism rate among Adolescent girls due to, among other things, cultural beliefs on menstruation.
According to Bertha’s deputy head teacher at Lunzu Catholic primary school Mercy Kazembe, majority of Adolescent girls do not go to school when menstruating due to reasons ranging from culture to lack of sanitary facilities.
"I never expected that the sanitary pads would give me a reason to remain in class while I am menstruating. They are unlike the pieces of cloth that I was using and made me feel unease,” says Bertha.
The sustainable sanitary pads that GENET-Malawi distribute to vulnerable Adolescent girls in rural schools are made of imported water-proof materials. The pads are produced by the cohort of other vulnerable girls and young women employed by GENET
Malawi. And it serves as part of their social entrepreneurship program aimed at empowering them economically.
Bertha says at first she was absconding classes when menstruating, fearing the unknown. Her situation was like that of many young girls at her school but it has been defeated by the introduction of the free sanitary pads plus menstrual hygiene practices training.
She attended a menstrual hygiene practices session before receiving her four pieces of sustainable sanitary pads plus underwear. Now, she says she is equipped with the necessary need and accurate information about menstruating and menstrual hygiene.
“The training on menstrual hygiene practices has equipped me with necessary skills to overcome traditional beliefs,” says Bertha, a standard 7 girl.
Bertha also confidently shared her experience to government leaders, community members, siblings, and parents that gathered at the official launch of ‘Keeping Girls in School 100%’ (KGS) project at her school on May 10, 2013. She was among hundreds of other beneficiaries of the project from Blantyre’s rural schools.
The project, currently targets 1000 Adolescent girls from 15 rural primary schools of Blantyre and Mulanje. It has been implemented with financial support from the Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development
Development Aid (Cord Aid) from the Netherlands and Carlsberg Malawi Limited, a local beverages company.
Currently, there is a huge demand for the project to increase the number of its beneficiaries per school as well as spreading its wings to others.
“This project is unique. Considering the huge number of Adolescent girls that do not go to school when menstruating, I wish you could increase the number of beneficiaries per school from 50 to something around 150. It should also reach more schools,” urged Hyacinth Kulemeka, Director of primary education in Malawi’s ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
In Malawi, the introduction of free primary education in 1994 has seen a large increase in the number of pupils going to school but this increase in access has also brought major infrastructure problems and a big decline in quality.
GENET-Malawi says will extend the project to other schools when funds permit.
“As an NGO, much as our work is influenced by passion for grassroots work, funding remains a critical component for our operations and existence. We will continue with ‘Keeping Girls in School 100%’ project when resources permit,” says GENET-Malawi executive director Faith Phiri.