In Malawi, COVID-19 is fundamentally changing the course of young women's lives. Already home to one of the highest rates of child marriages, rights activists fear a surge in underage unions.
Before coronavirus pandemic struck, Malawi already had one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world. But ever since schools closed to help combat the spread of COVID-19, remote areas have reported an increase in child marriages.
Kachitsa village near Salima, a lakeshore district in central Malawi, is one such place. With no classes to attend, children spend their days playing around an old borehole. The words to their playground songs bear witness to the effect the pandemic has had on their daily lives. Many of these children have no hope that their schools will re-open anytime soon and they have also seen their friends being married off during lockdown.
An end to education
One of them is 18-year-old Malita Banda. When her school closed, Malita felt she had little choice but to marry her boyfriend, another classmate of hers.
"Many of us have ended up indulging in immoral behaviors during this period," she told DW. "I got pregnant and so we got married. We have been doing business together ever since we got married."
According to Banda, the marriage was consensual. But even though Banda is 18, like many young people in rural Malawi, she has not finished primary school. Getting married this early effectively signals an end to what limited education they may already have. And Banda isn't alone in her situation.
"Since schools closed, seven of my classmates from my village have married," she adds.
Child marriage driven by poverty
A 2017 constitutional amendment raised the legal marriage age to 18 for both boys and girls in Malawi. Even so, a 2019 report from UNICEF said 46% of girls are married before 18. Poverty and lack of opportunities are the main factors behind these child marriages.
In some cases, parents and guardians have resorted to marrying off girls to reduce financial pressure on their own households. Many families are struggling to make ends meet after losing their incomes as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.
Memory Danifolo's 16-year-old daughter was recently married off. In Malawi, a dowry or lobola is normally paid by the groom's family to the bride's family. Like many other parents in her situation, Danifolo felt that she had little choice in the face of extreme financial stress.
"We have been greatly affected by the school closures and it has impacted our families," she told DW. "It is sad we cannot earn enough to keep our households together. We are in deep financial trouble."
Elders call for schools to re-open
Village elders from Kachitsa worry the school closures are damaging ongoing efforts to end child marriage. They want the Malawian government to implement working measures to re-open schools and thereby protect young women from entering marriages too soon.
"About thirteen girls from my area have married during this period," village spokesman Samual Mtenje said. "Stakeholders should lobby the government to put up these measures as a way of serving the girls."
Meanwhile, Caleb Ng'ombo from the NGO People Serving Girls at Risk says the long term future of Malawian children is in jeopardy because when schools eventually do re-open, there are fears many girls will have lost interest in their education.
"We must not forget that COVID-19 is coming on the hills of high illiteracy rates and other negative attributes," he told DW. "We have one of the highest rates of child marriages and COVID-19 has exacerbated the already-fragile situation."
Activist Natasha Annie Tonthola has been leading the fight against child marriages in Malawi as director of the Mama Africa Foundation. She has also taken aim at the country's 'hyena' rituals prevalent in rural Malawi, where young girls as part of an initiation ceremony must have sex with an older man. Tonthola estimates her organization has rescued 3 000 girls from child marriages and 'hyena' rituals. She laments that her efforts have resulted in just 850 girls going back to school.
"We need this government to form a commission which is going to go district by district, village by village, to find out where they are practicing these harmful things," she told DW.
Tonthola says government and NGOs are not trying to kill Malawian culture, but rather to balance it with the rights of young women.
In light of Malawi's recent election, where Lazarus Chakwera has swept to power, Tonthola is more optimistic: "This government wants to work with the youth, women, men who are qualified, so that we can work together to liberate Malawian women. The president has already said that he wants to include a lot of women in his cabinet, about 40% women."
Chimwemwe Padatha and Mirriam Kaliza contributed to this article.