When Memory Chitsulo was still in school, she married a man 10 years her senior. But he soon left for South Africa, leaving her with a baby.
Desperate for money, she turned to sex work.
“My parents died in a bus accident when I was 14. I got married since no one could take care of me. But he [the husband] immediately left for South Africa as he couldn’t find work here,” said Chitsulo.
“He stopped calling after two years. It’s been 10 years now,” added the mother-of-two.
Now 25, Memory works from a brothel in Luchenza, Thyolo.
Although child marriage is illegal, nearly half of girls in Malawi marry before their 18th birthday.
But charities in southern Africa say many child marriages have collapsed as poverty and unemployment drive tens of thousands of young Malawian men to seek work in South Africa.
“Many girls don’t survive early marriages, either because they face abuse and violence by their older partners or because they are abandoned by men who go to South Africa,” said Badilika executive director Forbes Msiska.
The organisation supports vulnerable girls with vocational training.
“I’ve talked to some young women who were left by their husbands who went to South Africa, but they don’t receive any financial support from them. They said they ended up prostituting in order to survive and support their children.”
Eye of the Child executive director Maxwell Matewele said there had been a visible increase in the number of children forced into prostitution.
He said most girls were aged between 14 and 18, but that he had come across some as young as nine.
Matewele asked government to address the root causes of child prostitution and come up with tougher legislation.
The government said it was aware of an increase in the number of young sex workers in the country, but could not say whether the breakdown in child marriages was a factor.
Sex workers are increasingly pitching up in rural settlements as competition in urban areas drives them to find new clients.
Many work from drinking joints across Malawi.
At Namisasi Trading Centre, villagers were astonished last year when eight sex workers arrived with their babies and set up business.
Joyce Masamba, 27, sees up to three clients a day—mostly local businessmen. She earns about K1 000 from a client.
“I was forced out of school to marry when I was 15,” she told Reuters outside the noisy bar where she works.
“I gave birth the same year but the man, who was 10 years older, started going out with other women. When I confronted him, he left me and the baby. Sex work was the only option I had to care for the baby and myself.”
Masamba now has three young children who live with her in a room provided by the bar owner. She hopes to give them the chances she has not had, but money is tight.
“I can’t even fully feed and clothe my children,” she said.
Experts say early marriage not only destroys a girl’s future but also perpetuates intergenerational poverty.
Children of parents with no education or skills are unlikely to break out of the poverty trap.
Earlier this year, Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Jean Kalilani, described child marriage as “a huge threat” to the country’s economic and social development.
She said factors exacerbating the high child marriage rate included poverty, low literacy levels among parents, a lack of female role models, peer pressure and harmful cultural practices that expose children to sex early in life.
In 2015, Malawi outlawed child marriage and amended its Constitution to ban marriage under 18 earlier this year.
The government says the law and other initiatives are already having an impact, but charities say it will take a lot more to end a deeply entrenched practice.
“All my colleagues in the bar and me were married off and had children before the age of 18,” said Masamba.
Looking back, she said: “I don’t think I should have been married off so young, but that’s what everybody was doing. It’s embedded in our culture.”