By Yamikani Yapuwa, MANA
Amina Mayilosi (not her real name), 16, from Namalaka Village in Mangochi was betrothed to a man based in South Africa last year.
“My parents were carried away by tablet phones and a television set that my suitor’s parents brought as gifts from their son.
“That time, I was in Standard Seven and I had to stop going to school because my fiancé directed so,” Amina says.
But, luckily, Amina withdrew from the marriage arrangement after being reached by members of a girl’s club and mentor mothers’ group. They enlightened her on the dangers of getting married at such an age.
True to the adage that ‘there is power in unity’, traditional leaders and communities in Mangochi and Mchinji have joined hands to end child marriages.
Through different structures like child protection committees, youth clubs, mother groups, male champions and girls clubs, people in Makanjira and Namavi in Mangochi and Zulu in Mchinji, have withdrawn girls like Amina from child marriages and betrothal.
Child Protection Committee Chairperson in Traditional Authority Namavi Davie Machemba says many parents were betrothing their young girls to Malawian men who are in South Africa.
“For most of them, it was because of the material things like smart phones and television screens that the men offered.
“Many parents would also want their young girls to have the same material things that their friends have,” he says.
However, Machemba says the situation changed following the introduction of the More Than Brides: Marriage is No Child’s Play Project by Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) in 2016.
Under the project, different groups were trained on the evils of early marriage and how to intervene as a community when child marriages and betrothals occur.
“Together with male and female mentors, promoters and girls clubs established under the project, we managed to abolish 33 child marriages in 2017; and out of that, we sent 19 girls back to school.
“The fact that we only had three marriages in 2018 and no cases of betrothals means that our awareness and sensitisation efforts on the evils of child marriage are paying off.
“Parents are now aware of the need to let girls go to school first,” Machemba says.
In Mchinji, the trends are similar in that communities, with the guidance of Village Head Mbachundu, have made significant strides in ending child marriages.
Village Head Mbachundu says they have, so far, dissolved 17 child marriages and have since sent the girls back to school.
“We normally follow up when we hear that some children are married and see to it that we end the marriage right away,” Mbachundu says.
The girls themselves are not relenting in that they are also playing a pivotal role.
Mtanga Girls Club mentor in Mchinji, Fatima Ali, says the club has managed to terminate 22 child marriages since the inception of the project.
“Since we received the training under the Marriage’s No Child’s Play, a lot of things have changed. Young girls are not getting married any more. Even cases of early pregnancies have drastically decreased.
“All the 22 girls withdrawn from child marriages went back to school; twenty are in secondary school while two are at Kochilira Primary School,” Ali says.
Secretary for Mdzomba Girls Club, Esther Stalicor says, they too, have managed to end over 20 marriages and that people are aware of the evils of forcing young girls into early marriages.
“It is now rare to hear of a child marriage. Out of 10 villages, only one child marriage occurs, an indication that our involvement is having an impact,” Stalicor says.
“After withdrawal, we send them to school and in cases where tuition fee becomes an issue, we encourage them to do small-scale businesses for them to earn a little something,” she adds.
YONECO Executive Director, McBain Mkandawire explains that they rolled out the project to ensure that young people decide when to marry and pursue their sexual reproductive health rights in a supportive environment.
“In doing so, we are complementing government efforts in ending child marriages in Mangochi and Mchinji districts,” Mkandawire says.
“We normally use communities to take a leading role in our projects because we would like to promote the spirit of ownership of the initiative,” he adds.
Mkandawire believes that the engagement of chiefs and communities in Mchinji and Mangochi has proved effective as the people are now taking it upon themselves to withdraw girls from child marriages.
Executive Director for Eye of the Child Maxwell Matewere concurs with Mkandawire that communities are indeed key gatekeepers and watchdogs in enforcing laws and creating a protective environment for children.
“When communities participate, you are guaranteed that no child will be left behind and abused in privacy because the community is watching.
“It means, therefore, that every child will be protected, able to go to school and prepare for their future,” he says.
Matewere adds that communities stand to gain a lot from their involvement in ending child marriages as they will be able to raise future leaders who will develop the country.
Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Kondwani Nankhumwa says there is need to continue engaging with traditional leaders and relevant governance structures to challenge cultural practices that promote child marriages.
“An estimated 85 percent of the population lives in rural areas. It is very important to get chiefs involved in wiping out child marriages,” Nankhumwa says.
“Traditional leaders have a key role to play in fostering behavioural change bearing in mind their authority, influence and commitment in the fight against HIV and AIDS as well as promotion of women rights,” he adds.