"This (increased) is a worrisome development in as far as promoting girl-child rights is concerned."
Malawi has recorded a staggering spike of more than 40, 000 in teenage pregnancies within the eight months of school break due to the global novel Covid-19 pandemic.
Plan International Malawi and Organisation for Sustainable Social Economic Development Initiative (OSSEDI) made the revelation last Thursday in Nsanje District when they organised training for district level officials on the impact of Covid-19 on girls.
Malawi has one of the highest rates of early marriage and teenage pregnancy in the world with about half of the girls marrying before the age of 18, according to available government records
Caleb Pemba, coordinator for Plan International Malawi coordinator, said there is a sharp increase in teenage pregnancies in the country following school closure as a result of the ravaging coronavirus pandemic which has killed over 3 million people across the globe.
"An increase by 26 percent in pregnancies coupled with rising cases of sexual and GBV was a setback to activism on child rights to education and wellbeing. The situation is worrisome and stakeholders and authorities need do more in trying to address the situation and more is needed to rescue the girl child from the dangers," he said as his organisation implants several interventions on child rights," said Pemba.
Plan International Malawi and OSSEDI organised the training for Nsanje District Executive Committee and Gender Technical Working Group to develop their capacity to deal with the current impact of Covid-19 pandemic in Nsanje as the national trend an increase in sexual and Gender Based Violence (GBV) by almost 25 per cent.
The two implementing partners described the situation as worrisome and likely to undermine efforts on gender responsive interventions as the country recorded 12,995 child marriages.
OSSEDI District Coordinator for Nsanje, Ezra Black disclosed that his organisation was worried about the increased polygamy trends in the country saying 13 women aged between 15 to 45 years are engaged polygamous union adding that this affects education to about 21 percent of children residing in rural areas.
"This (increase) is a worrisome development in as far as promoting girl child rights is concerned because if a girl is coming from a polygamous family, chances are there that this girl cannot attend school hence her higher chances of getting pregnant while searching for ways and means to survive," he said.
From December 2020 to February 2012, Nsanje recorded 21 pregnancies, 85 child marriages and efforts were made to withdraw 62 girls from child marriages, according to a sample from Nsanje District Social Welfare Office.
District Chief Planning and Development Officer for Nsanje, Smith, Mnenula said the district's education office was working together with other stakeholders to implement the government readmission policy to girls who dropped out of school due pregnancy.
"As a district through the readmission policy, we are working together with different stakeholders to ensure that the policy becomes more effective to the current situation," he said, adding that the district was looking forward to enforce the readmission policy which was in line with the Nsanje District Development Plan.
Plan International Malawi and OSSEDI are implementing a year project called Step Up, a Spotlight Initiative programme to promote the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals especially goals 5, 16 and 17 which empower all institutions including civil society organizations and community based organizations, through practical implementation and understanding of human rights instruments and gender equitable norms.
'Key to success'
Mzuzu based, wellness expert and girl rights advocate, Theana Ananstansia Msolomba in an interview with Nyasa Times said:
"Teenage pregnancies and early marriages for some girls in Malawi is their only way out as becoming a mother, to many, is considered as an achievement by the community and having a husband offers not only provide a financial stability.
"It is also erroneously considered as means to justify the end in as far as social safety and security is concerned."
Msolomba, who is also a financial educator and head of Finca Malawi in the Northern Region added: "Getting married early and becoming a mother, unfortunately is considered an achievement in our society.
"We have to educate our girls that an early marriage or becoming a mother at a young age is not and will never be an achievement.
"We have to teach the girls that education is the key to success and a secure future. We must inform them that education brings all forms of independence to a woman. We must advise our girls that getting married or becoming a mother must be a choice and not a necessity."
According to Msolomba, who also runs 'Kuwala lifestyle' - an initiative that seeks to help women to live life to the fullest through mind, body and soul vitality health and wellness teenage pregnancies and child marriages are interlinked.
She said: "Whenever a young woman becomes pregnant, many times she is expected to marry the man with who she became pregnant. If a girl bears children before she is physically, mentally and emotionally ready, it can have major negative physical and mental consequences.
Child marriage and teenage pregnancies prevent young people to complete their education and consequently they end up being victims as they miss out on the educational and economical opportunities that could help them and their families rise above poverty lines. This is why we must teach our girls what they need to know not what society wants them to be or do."
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) Executive secretary Habiba Osman, who is the former United nations Women specialist for the elimination of violence against women and girls, in a separate interview with Nyasa Times, said:
"The long periods of idleness as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has had adverse impact on the girl child resulting in an avalanche of early marriages and teenage pregnancies.
Malawi is ranked at 163 out of of the 174 countries based on the United Nations Human Development Index and has the 4th lowest GDP per capita in the world at US$586 million per annum.
Mangochi, a lakeshore district in the south-east Malawi, has the highest proportion of teenagers who have started childbearing pegged at 48 percent while the capital Lilongwe has the lowest at 25 percent.
"We must stop this trend as a matter of emergency and urgency. I appeal to president Chakwera and his administration to double up their efforts on the matter, We need to protect the girl child as a well as the boy child as they are the future," said Osman.