11 July 2016

Malawi: A Communities' Victory Against Child Marriage

Photo: USAID
Young girls study (file photo).

Lilongwe — Alinafe Rashid had heard stories of parents who, out of pure greed, marry off their young daughters. She never thought it could happen to her.

Alinafe, 15, therefore thought it was some kind of a joke when she heard that her stepfather had found a man to marry her in May this year, in spite of the fact that she was young and still at school.

"My biological father who had divorced my mother knew nothing about the arrangement, and was shocked when he heard about it," said the standard five pupil of Chisoti Primary School in Nkhotakota.

Alinafe said as she was intent on her education, it came as a rude shock when she learnt she was to be married to a subsistence farmer around where she lived.

Unknown to Alinafe, her stepfather had already received bride price, and all that remained was for her to be sent to her husband-to-be.

Meanwhile, news of the planned marriage had reached members of the Chiutula Village Rights Committee (VRC) in the area of Senior Chief Malengachanzi, who hastily took action.

The VRC's intervention put paid to the marriage plans, saving Alinafe from entering into a marriage she was totally against and enabling her to continue schooling. The bride price was returned to the suitor.

Alinafe is one of several primary school girls in villages around Chisoti Primary School in the area of Traditional Authority Malengachanzi who have been prevented from getting married against their will.

"This was once a big problem here," said Ramadan Saidi, a Community-Based Facilitator (CBF) for Chiutula, referring to communities around Chisoti Primary School.

Saidi said that girls in the area used to marry in their early teens, but with the Chiutula VRC teaming up with locals to stop the practice, the marrying off of young girls had been stopped.

"By the age of 18, most of them would already be married," he told Mana, adding that what brought change were the messages they spread about the importance of keeping the girl-child in school.

As the battle intensifies against child marriages, CBFs and VRCs across the country are in the forefront assisting government to educate people about the bad practice and many other rights abuses.

VRCs and CBFs, working through local partners of the Democracy Consolidation Programme (DCP), have been carrying out their work voluntarily since the government-owned programme came into being.

The Malawi Government developed and implemented the DCP with funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) after the country embraced political pluralism.

DCP's establishment followed the commendable progress the country had made since 1994 in institutionalizing a democratic culture with the attendant respect for human rights.

DCP aims to create an empowered citizenry that is ready and eager to participate in governance processes, demand good governance and realization of the right to development, among others.

One of the numerous rights abuses that the DCP is fighting across the country through VRCs is the practice of forcing young school female children to get married.

Malawi in 2015 outlawed child marriage after Parliament tabled and passed the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill which set the legal minimum age of marriage at 18 years.

The then Minister of Gender, Children and Social Welfare, Patricia Kaliati, said at the time when she tabled the bill that parents and guardians who neglected children would be punished.

Kaliati, who is now Minister of Information, told Parliament that a minimum of 10 years imprisonment awaited those involved in child marriage in whatever way.

What the Chiutula VRC and locals have done to ban marriages in the area involving young girls shows that communities can achieve success in any endevour without relying on government.

In their bid to stop child marriages, communities around Chiutula have introduced by-laws, empowering traditional leaders to punish parents who disregard them with fines.

Violators can also be reported to community policing forums who in turn can take them to court should the need arise. The by-laws appear to have had a deterrence effect.

"The country's laws forbid child marriages, yet people in many communities hide them when they happen," Lusubilo Zimba, Nkhotakota Paralegal Officer, told Mana. "We should expose them."

Zimba said the path Chiutula VRC had taken to involve village heads and their subjects to make bye laws for the area to stop child marriages was worthy of praise.

She noted that the practice was no longer in existence in Chiutula. Besides violating the country's human laws, the practice also infringed on children's rights, she added.

"It is the duty of everyone to protect these young children and stop them from getting married. Instead, we should encourage them to continue learning," Zimba said.

"Let me also take this opportunity to appeal to all traditional leaders in Nkhotakota to emulate the example Chiutula has set so that the practice in the whole district comes to an end."

The VRC and other DCP volunteers often incur the wrath of some people, including duty bearers while attempting to correct a wrong in society, but they carry on with their work undaunted.

And because of the volunteers' and other concerned people's relentless pursuit of justice, things have now improved at Chisoti Primary School.

"In the past, girls would get married anyhow," said Chrissy Kapalamula, the school's head. "That is not happening now. We are prepared to anger parents for the good of their children."

Kapalamula said some parents "come back to thanks us after realizing that the tough stance we have taken is for their own good and say we have helped them."

Thirteen female pupils at the school who had quit have been brought back, some of them after being married. Others quit school because of not receiving encouragement to go to school.

"A lot of men [in the district] go to South Africa to look for work, leaving their children in the care of relatives who have no interest in their education," said teacher Violet Banda, 26.

Banda blamed some traditional dances such as Makhanya, saying it was a contributing factor to the dropout rate among girls.

"The dance is sexual in nature and performed at night," she said. "It promotes promiscuity among girls who often go to bed very late."

She said some children who return to school catch up quickly and that in some cases, they even surpass their friends who have had no disturbance.

"One of the pupils who resumed schooling sat the 2016 primary school leaving examinations," said Banda, an 'Agent for Change' teacher. "She will definitely get selected [to secondary school]."

It remains to be seen if Alinafe will finish her primary education and go on to realize her dream to be a nurse. But one look at her tells you she is determined to forego pleasure to achieve her dream.

"I am determined to continue learning. I won't allow anything to come in my way like what happened," said Alinafe, the second born in a family of five. "I just want to be a nurse."

And it is encouraging to learn that she is catching up despite having stopped learning for a while, according to her head teacher.

Kapalamula said: "Although she was disturbed with the marriage issue, she is picking up in class."

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