By Madalitso Kateta
A single decision changed 16-year-old Mumderanji Loyidi’s life. Although she was a promising pupil at Lisungwi Primary School in Neno, southern Malawi, Mumderanji recalls the day that she was told that she would be marrying a man who was three times her age.
Then only aged 13, Mumderanji – who was orphaned at the age of nine – could not believe that her uncle would be sending her to get married at such tender age.
“I had just sat for my primary school leaving certificate and I was young and childish,” Mumderanji told Equal Times in an interview.
Now divorced from her 42-year-old husband and back in school, Mumderanji is one of the estimated 50 per cent of Malawian girls who ends up as a child bride.
According to UNICEF, 46 per cent of Malawian girls are married by 18 and even after the government’s decision to raise the age of marriage from 15 to 18 in 2015, some 9 per cent of girls are still married by the age of 15, as boys and girls of that age can still marry with parental consent.
Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world and the biggest reason behind it is poverty. According to the United Nations Development Program, an estimated 29.8 per cent of the country’s 16 million-odd population live in severe multi-dimensional poverty.
Many families marry off their young daughters because they cannot afford to keep them. The family of the bride is paid a lobola (bride price) and the girl joins her new family. In some parts of the country, young girls are even married off as a form of debt repayment.
The consequences of child marriages are severe, not only causing young girls to miss out on an education but also on their childhood, while exposing them to the dangers of early pregnancy and various forms of mental, physical and sexual abuse.
Patricia Banda, 17, another child marriage survivor from Nayuchi in Machinga, central Malawi, told Equal Times that she was raped and beaten by her husband until she was rescued by community social workers.
“Being young, I did not understand what was happening to me,” says Banda who is now living with HIV, in a country where some 540,000 women over the age of 15 are HIV-positive.
Madalitso Mondiwa, an advocacy officer at Plan International Malawi says the problem of child marriages in Malawi has been heightened by the fact that young people are not encouraged to play a more active role in the fight against child marriages.
“The youth need to be empowered to rise above being victims of circumstances in child marriages and bring about the change they desire,” says Mondiwa.
To this end, Plan International Malawi is running a youth-led campaign to bring about the amendment of Section 22(7) of the Malawi Constitution which allows the marriage of 15 to 18-year-olds with parental consent.
Twenty-four-year-old Tionge, who is working on Plan’s Because I am a Girl campaign wrote in a blog post: “A woman needs to be ready physically and mentally for marriage. It’s not something an 11-year-old girl can or should deal with.”
Poverty is no excuse
While poverty can be seen as one of the main causes for the prevalence of child marriages in the country, Theresa Kachindamoto, a senior chief from Dedza in central Malawi, whose work against child marriage garnered international headlines last year, says that is no excuse.
Kachindamoto, who has annulled over 850 child marriages in the past three years, says sending children into marriage is a gross human rights violation that needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms as it creates a vicious circle of poverty from which underage brides find it difficult to escape.
“These young girls go into these marriages without the necessary survival mechanisms in life and as traditional leaders we strongly condemn such marriages,” she told Equal Times.
However, Kachindamoto is positive about the progress being made in the fight against child marriages.
“The government has demonstrated commitment towards ending this malpractice. However, there are contradictions in our laws and loopholes which allow for such marriages,” she said. “It is the duty of all stakeholders, including traditional leaders, to fight against the malpractice which usually results into income variation between men and women at a later stage of their lives.”
Dr Mary Shawa, the principal secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare told Equal Times:
“We recognise the problems caused by child marriages and the government, with support from its development partners, is fighting this. A special focus is being put on vulnerable and margnilised adolescent girls in difficult situations that perpetually face the challenges of early marriages, unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection.”
Shawa says that her ministry, with support from SOS Children’s Villages, is in a process of developing a National Child Policy that will respond to the needs of children with harmonised legislation. She says the policy will change the way in which child development programs are designed and will enable children to enjoy their rights as enshrined by international law.