Malawi: The Case for Child Marriage in Mzimba
By Kelvin Tembo
Malawi, Mzimba – At the age of 11 while her mates wake up early in the morning, take a bath and set off for school, Catherine Msiska* does the opposite. Her routine work is now that of a woman after she decided against pursuing her studies.
In grade five of her studies at Mnthonje Primary School in the northern region district of Mzimba in Malawi, Catherine decided she has had enough of classroom education. She is now five months old as a married child.
Concerned about her rush into marriage, members of the mother group in the area in collaboration with members of the School Management Committee (SMC), and Child Protection Committee stepped in.
“When we learned about Catherine being married, we mobilized ourselves, and we managed to successfully withdraw her to bring her back to school,” Aliness Nyirenda, Secretary for Mnthonje Mother Group told Rural Reporters.
“However, the withdrawal did not last long as instead of going back to school she decided to go back to her marriage,” she said.
As they learned about the news of her return to marriage, they started planning their next course of action. They were determined not to give up on her.
“As we were contemplating our next move, I was personally visited by Catherine’s father who threatened that we should abandon our plan of withdrawing his daughter again citing reasons that he feared for her daughters’ life as he insinuated that she might end up committing suicide since to him she had chosen marriage over education and the father told me it is something he has accepted,” Nyirenda said.
“I explained this to my fellow members and to avoid creating enmity and being blamed in the case where something bad happens to her, we agreed to end our attempt to withdraw her, and we closed the case,” she said.
As strange as Catherine’s story might sound, the issue of child marriage in the northern region district of Mzimba in Malawi is not new. Finding an 18-year-old girl (which is the legal marriage age) who has never been married before in the region’s rural areas is as rare as gold.
According to statistics from Mzimba District Social Welfare Office, between July 2016 and May 2017, about 112 cases of child marriage has been reported.
“Of the 112, only 56 were returned to school while the rest are refusing to go back to school for fear of being mocked by their mates insisting that they can only go back to school once transferred to a faraway school where people are not aware of them being married at one point,” said Grace Mvula, Mzimba District Social Welfare Officer.
Mvula added, “The current scenario of child marriages in the district is very complicated, in the past, we were recording cases of forced marriages with parents forcing their children into marriages with the belief that having a girl child is a source of income for payment of the bride price.”
“However, the current scenario is very different. For example of the 112 cases we recorded, only three were forced but the rest decided to marry willingly, and we are yet to establish why this is the case,” said Mvula.
Mvula is of the view that the cases registered might be more than what they have recorded saying there are a lot of unreported cases and she suggests that the figure might hit to over 300 as those not reported outweigh the reported cases.
For quite a long time, poverty has been described as the underlining cause for child marriage. Parents have always been blamed for preferring to sponsor a boy child in education over a girl child with the belief that a girl child cannot be productive enough even if educated as their place is in the kitchen, not the office.
Mnthonje Primary School Head teacher, Laston Munyenyembe, however, plays down poverty as the underlining cause of child marriages.
“To me, poverty is no longer an underlining cause considering that currently there are a lot of programs supporting girls’ education. What I have seen is the mindsets of parents as many of them do not think that school is important because they too, did not go far with education,” Munyenyembe said.
“Because they did not go far with the education they get carried away with petty things resulting in them forcing their children into marriage. For example, here migration is playing a big role. Men migrate to South Africa and parents force their children to marry men who have migrated to South Africa to ensure financial security,” he said.
On her part, Grace Mvula, the District Social Welfare Officer, identifies three underlining causes. These include cultural practices, peer pressure and migration for continued increasing numbers of child marriages in the district.
“There is this cultural practice whereby when a girl has come to age is locked in a house for one week where all the talk and advice is about marriage life, and I think once the girls are out, they are bent on trying what they have learnt hence the rush to get married,” Mvula said.
“Also, I see a lot of peer pressure. We cannot blame poverty anymore. Projects are there to support girls’ education but what I see is that many girls once their age mate is married they too want to get married. This is true such that some parents are now blaming the girls for being married early,” she said.
“However, the two are just minor reasons; the most underlining cause is migration. Parents do not see the importance of school so are the children, all they want is enjoy, and that enjoyment is believed to be found in men who migrate to South Africa,” Mvula said.
“Currently, men who have migrated to South Africa have the habit of inviting their spouses and it is like every girl is willing to marry them as they (girls) see that as their opportunity to visit South Africa, a country which is highly valued among many Malawians in rural areas due to stories of its luxurious life,” she said.
Short-term and Long-term Impact
Aside from the many effects on girls’ health, which include increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, death during childbirth and obstetric fistulas, child marriages have greatly affected the education sector in the district according to Humphreys Mwalughali, a social worker.
“One who is married early it is obvious that she does that at the expense of education. Currently, education standards have gone down in the district from the district which was in position one on literacy levels now ranking over around 20 such that if the scenario continues, we will have more illiterate people,” Mwalughali said.
“More illiterate people will translate to less development of the district,” he said.
Aliness Nyirenda, the secretary for Mnthonje Mother Group, points out parents’ interference in their work as a major challenge they are facing.
“We get discouraged by some parents’ behavior that shouts and threaten us not to intervene on the welfare of their daughters and they even go further to say that we should give birth to daughters whom we should withdraw from marriage,” Nyirenda said.
Nyirenda’s sentiments are shared by Inkosi Khosolo who testifies that it is making enforcement of by-laws complicated but to stamp their authority in communities such parents are reported to police so that they get arrested.
And according to Mvula, their fight against child marriages is made difficult due to some challenges ranging from policy framework as well as limited resources.
“As I have already alluded to, that one of the major underlining cause of child marriages is migration. Our office has no mandate to prevent people from going to South Africa, so the more this continues, the more complicated the fight against child marriages will remain,” she said.
“In addition to that, the funding we get from the government is not enough, and I would like to urge the government to consider increasing our funding. The education department receives a lot of money but if our office is not [adequately] funded the schools will not have students as they will all get married,” she said.
Currently, the district social welfare office has entered into an agreement with the office of the District Commissioner to track young girls applying for passports who have been invited to South Africa where they intend to get married.
“With this agreement so far we have already prevented 14 girls from obtaining passports to go get married in South Africa within a very short period. Every underage girl is referred to our office where we seize their passport application forms, and it is helping though not 100% guaranteed as some by pass the legitimate process,” Grace Mvula, District Social Welfare Officer said.
Mvula said apart from that they continue with awareness campaigns on the ills of child marriage and also with assistance from non-governmental organizations, various projects aimed at preventing girls from rushing into marriage are being implemented.
Communities have also taken the fight against child marriage in their hands. Mother groups and child protection committees have been formed with their goal of fighting child marriages. By-laws have also been formulated in various communities.
“We have formulated regulations where we discourage any marriage of children whether being married to an old person or a fellow child,” saidInkosi Khosolo, a traditional leader. “We have imposed penalties on minor issues and on issues we cannot handle the formulation of the by-laws have helped in enhancing reporting of these issues to higher authorities.”
Catherine Msiska* not her real name. Identity protected for privacy.