By Duncan Mlanjira
Early child marriages are rampant in Mulanje and that has prompted Plan International Malawi have set up strong campaign strategies to put a stop to the malpractice using traditional leaders, community volunteers and Timveni community radio.
On top of that, primary school learners have also been engaged to check on each other’s signs of teenage love affairs and report to their parents, teachers, traditional leaders and community volunteers.
On Monday, Plan International Malawi engaged the media who were taken on a site visit in Traditional Authority (TA) Mkanda’s area where the delegation were appraised by the community leaders and volunteers how the programme is being executed.
The communities have set up interactive groups under the banner 18+ Clubs, which comprises, traditional leaders, exemplary mothers (named Amayi a Chitsanzo) and male champions to act as negotiators to impress on the parents to keep their kids in schools rather than letting them get married early.
Group Village Headwoman Kukada said they are imposing serious fines on parents and other chiefs who will be allowing their children into early marriages and these fines are pooled together and being used to fund the girl child’s academic needs.
Kukada said early child marriages are usually encouraged by some traditional leaders because they receive gifts from the parents and the suitors to bless their marriages but now every time there is such occurrence the traditional leaders are also heavily fined.
Kukada said she was also not spared as she had also been fined when a child marriage happened in her area even though she hadn’t taken part in the process.
And the girls that get pregnant are counseled and after they have delivered, they are sent back to school.
The system was put in place since 2016 and received strong resistance and hostility but Kukada said she stood her ground with the support of T/A Mkanda, T/A Juma, Plan International Malawi, the village chiefs’ wives and the community volunteers.
The volunteers said since 2017, they stopped 299 child marriages while 117 girls who fell prey to teen pregnancies were sent back to school six months after delivery.
In total the intervention were on over 815 girls and boys. The boys were dropping out of school through peer pressure, lack of fees and disinterest from parents among others.
The community volunteers managed to source a sewing machine which they are learning how to sew school uniforms for sale and the funds are put into their bank account to be used to buy academic needs for the learners they have sent back to school.
One of the exemplary mothers, Jessie Maganga said they first faced strong resistance from the mothers of the girls because letting their kids into marriages was like taking off a huge burden of raising them.
“Poverty also was playing a huge role but we managed to slowly impress on them when we assisted with some of the kids’ basic academic needs,” she said.
“Some were threatening us but with the help of the Male Champions, we managed to convince them that it is not only important for the future of their kids but also that it is illegal to allow an under-age child to get married.
“Thanks to our Group Kukada for standing firm and to Plan International Malawi for the support that helped us not to get discouraged,” she said.
The community volunteers’ chairperson Joseph Nakali confirmed that early child marriages have drastically been reduced but the fight is ongoing and asked for donors to assist them with how they can be generating more funds to keep the fire burning.
He said they need to be empowered with entrepreneurship skills so that they can establish a nursery school where kids of the learners can be looked after when their mothers are in school.
“On top of this programme we also meet twice a week with Group Kukada and other traditional leaders where we discuss and try to solve some of the ills affecting our communities,” he said.
T/A Mkanda’s and T/A Juma’s area have nine primary schools and five secondary schools and all of them have 18+ Club and Radio listening groups.
At Mkanda Primary School, the media delegation caught up with an interactive session between its 18+ mentor Agness Sapala, who said they impart on the kids ways to detect if a fellow schoolmate is having a love affair by among other things if they suddenly possess a cellphone or have abundance cash.
“These are some of the things which older people entice the girls with — lots of cash and provision of mobile phones.
“These are the signs and the learners have been skilled to detect these signs and report either to their parents, teachers, traditional leaders or community volunteers,” she said.
The system is bearing fruits, as according to Sapala and one of the learners interviewed, Beatrice Kapinga, who also said they help in reaching out to some of the girls who dropped out of school by visiting them at their homes.
“Some of those who came back have managed to be selected to secondary schools and that was our greatest moments in this campaign,” said the 14-year-old Beatrice.
She said to sustain themselves in providing academic needs which were the reason why those who dropped from school, the 18+ Club are taught skills such as crafting door mats, girls sanitary pads, pottery and other artworks which they sell to the public.
The community in T/A Juma is passionate about football and the male champions takes advantage of the huge gathering to disseminate the campaign against allowing girls for earth marriage.
“We emphasize on the fact that having sex with an underaged girl is a criminal offense and we have taken offenders to the police who were eventually convicted by the courts,” said team leader John Basali.