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Arresting child marriage monster in Dowa, Ntchisi

Watipaso Mzungu | Oct. 7, 2021, 9 a.m.

In Kaleza Village in the area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Chiwere in Dowa, 17-year-old Alefa Jeputala is breastfeeding her six-month-old baby while her immediate 16-year-old cousin, Gelo Postini, is carrying her four-month-old pregnancy.

Across the river in Kayesa Village, seven girls have dropped out of school over the past three years due to combined early marriages and unplanned pregnancies.

Prior to giving birth in January 7, 2021, Alefa’s desire to start married life with her 18-year-old boyfriend ended into disaster as the then innocent, nice looking and loving boyfriend had suddenly become violent and uncooperative.

“He told me he wasn’t ready for marriage and that my presence in his family was not welcomed. And in his desperate attempt to force me out of his house, he beat me every night and it is at this point that I decided to pack my belongings and return to my parents,” she explained.

Alefa was in Standard Five when she fell pregnant last year while Gelo has just dropped out of Standard Six this year.

Gelo said she was eight when she fell in love with the boy that finally sowed a holy seed in her womb.

“We have been having sex from our tender ages. Our parents used to advise us to end our relationship, but we never listened until this year when I discovered that I am pregnant,” she narrated.

Despite combined efforts by the government and its development partners, Malawi has continued to register steady rise in cases of child marriages.

In fact, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world, with approximately 42 percent of girls married before the age of 18, and nine per cent below the age of 15.

Additionally, approximately 29 percent of girls aged 15 and 19 are already mothers or pregnant with their first child.

Studies have shown that in Malawi, only 45 per cent of girls stay in school beyond Standard Eight.

The desire to start a family is one of the top reasons for child marriage in Malawi.

A 2018 recent survey on traditional practices by the University of Zurich et al showed that the decision to marry is often perceived to be taken by individuals themselves, even though there are cases in which this decision is perceived to be made by others.

Child marriages also have severe impacts on learning, including contributing to low secondary school completion rates.

And as UNICEF warns, if this is not addressed, child marriages could have severe social, economic and political consequences on the nation.

Dowa and Ntchisi are among the districts that registered a historic surge in child marriages as Malawi was battling with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, a recent study by the National Statistical Office (NSO) revealed.

This prompted the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace of the Archdiocese of Lilongwe (CCJP Lilongwe) in partnership with Child Rights Advocacy and Paralegal Aid Centre (CRAPAC)  to initiate a project to contribute towards government efforts to tame the vice.

The project, which is titled ‘Raising the Voice of Women in the Fight Against Violence Against Women and Girls Project’, is being financed by UN Women through Spotlight Initiative Project, which is providing a holistic approach to ending violence against women and girls and promote Agenda 2030’s guiding principle of “leaving no one behind”.

To achieve the goal, CCJP Lilongwe and CRAPAC mobilized community, traditional and religious leaders, including men to protect women and girls and create a more enabling and safer environment for them.

CCJP Lilongwe Archdiocesan Coordinator Enock Kamundi Phiri disclosed that the ultimate goal of the four months project was to contribute towards significant empowerment of women and girls and creation of a violence-free environment.

“This project, which expires this June, was implemented in areas under Senior Chief Nthondo and TA Kalumo in Ntchisi and TAs Chiwele, Mkukula and Msakambewa in Dowa. In the intermediate, the project aims to make women and girls more aware about all forms of violence and discrimination against them while in the long term, the intervention goes beyond just the process of women empowerment, but as an outcome where women and girls can participate in self-development processes and claim their rights at all levels,” said Kamundi.

Under this project, combined forces by traditional and community leaders in the two districts have resulted in dissolution of 85 marriages in less than two months.

Of these, 66 child marriages have been dissolved in Senior Chief Nthondo in Ntchisi while the rest were terminated in T/A Chiwere in what is seen as a positive and decisive step towards eliminating incidences of violence targeted at women and girls.

Nthondo disclosed that most of the ended child marriages, largely perpetrated by harmful cultural practices and poverty, involved 16 or 17-year-olds who can hardly support themselves, leading to increased burden on their parents or guardians.

The senior chief was briefing a team of journalists who visited the area to appreciate the progress the area is making towards ending the vice.

Senior Chief Nthondo added that punitive by-laws formulated in his area in order to support child related laws at national level, are helping a lot in ending child marriages in his area.

“We do not allow child marriages here. In May alone, we ended 56 early marriages. In June, ten. Some of these children have actually gone back to school. Parents who are encouraging child marriages are punished severely. However, the CCJP and CRAPAC project has a short period. We wish it should continue for it has helped us a lot,” he said.

He further said harmful cultural practices including "chinamwali" and ‘bulangete la a mfumu’ that perpetrate child marriages and ‘fisi’, which violates women’s rights, have been abolished in his area.

“Irresponsible and selfish husbands who have all the proceeds of some of the farm produce to themselves, are punished severely. Wives are then awarded all the remaining produce so they can sell it and use the proceeds to support their children with school and other essential needs. Polygamy is allowed only when it is certified that a particular man really requires more women and that he is capable to take care of them. Otherwise, we do not allow polygamy here for it is another root cause of violence, poverty and child marriages,” he said.

During the two-day media tour, community members said the project has raised awareness about anti-violence laws and helped build and develop local structures such as traditional leaders, community based educators, community police forums, male champions, mother groups and community victim support units to improve coordination and effectiveness in addressing gender based violence.

SGVH Tokoma commended CCJP Lilongwe and CRAPAC for initiating the project, saying it will go a long way in addressing sexual and gender based violence in his area.

According to SGVH Tokoma, the most common incidences include child marriages and wife battery, among others.

“After community based educators came to enlighten us, we formulated punitive by-laws that are helping us address some of these issues. For instance, this month we have terminated 19 child marriages. Parents who orchestrate these marriages are required to pay MK50, 000. However, the challenge is that some of these children would not go back to school due to lack of support since their parents are poor,” said Tokoma.

However, Nthondo and Tokoma lamented that the timeframe of the project was too short to register a noticeable impact on the targeted beneficiaries.

Child marriages and other cases of gender based violence, as the media tour found out, have not spared Mkukula Village in TA Mkukula where Sidonia Muyande, a female community based educator, is working with other community structures to address the challenges.

According to Muyande, cases of child abuse, child labour and wife battery – fueled by high levels of illiteracy – are also on the rise.

Community based educators like Muyande have been trained by the CCJP Lilongwe and CRAPAC to educate communities about the evils of sexual and gender based violence and what they can do to avert the vice.

Head of Programs for CCJP Lilongwe, Patrick Chima, could not commitment himself on the request to have the project extended, stressing that this would depend on the benevolence of the donors.

However, Chima expressed hope that the donor partners would be willing to extend the project, saying the data for gender based violence cases remain high, especially in Dowa.

“We acknowledge that we have to sustain the good work we have started. We also know that most of the victims and their families cannot support themselves. As the project implementers, we are also discussing with district social welfare offices and other relevant stakeholders to consider including such victims and families in the social protection measures being implemented at district level in order to have something to support themselves with,” said Chima.

The CCJP Lilongwe and CRAPAC project was designed to empower women and girls so that they can challenge drivers of violence against women and girls both in private and public spheres.