Mary Chirwa, 15, has always wanted to become a nurse. Her class performance, coupled with her parentsâ€™ support, gave her hope that one day she would realise her dream.
However, her fatherâ€™s death in 2010 changed all this. Her widowed mother had no source of income to support the family of four. As such, they would go hungry and could not afford decent clothing.
Later, Maryâ€™s mother remarried.
â€œThat was the beginning of pain in my life,â€ says Mary.
She says her stepfather would pressure her to sleep with him. She decided to tell her mother about it. To her shock, she was told to keep the matter under wraps.
â€œI was afraid that one day, my stepfather would rape me. I then told one of our neighbours,â€ says the girl.
This angered her mother and stepfather, who chased her out of their home. Mary had nowhere to go. For the first few days, she slept under bridges or in the streets of Blantyre until she decided to take the long journey to Chiradzulu to live with a distant relation.
It is here that a friend introduced Mary to Adolescent Girls Advocacy Network (Aganet).
Aganet is a network of organisations and individuals in Malawi who are fellows of a US-based organisation called Adolescent Girls Advocacy and Leadership Initiative (Agali).The objective of Aganet is to tackle issues affecting adolescent girls.
Mary could have ended up in prostitution, thereby thwarting her long time dream of becoming a nurse. But today, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Aganet is giving her all the education support she needs. The organisation, through other members, have also helped to reunite her with her family and she is now living peacefully. According to the girl, Aganet promised to support her entire education.
â€œI thank God that my coming to Chiradzulu helped me to meet Aganet. I am now looking into the future with optimism,â€ says Mary, who is now travelling across the country with the group.
Speaking before Mary gave her testimony at the launch of Aganet at Crossroads Hotel in Lilongwe recently, chairperson of the network responsible for national conferences on adolescent girls, Joyce Chikakuda, said the future of Malawian girls is at risk partly because of the ambiguity of the Marriage Law.
â€œMalawi cannot progress with our Marriage Law where young girls are allowed to marry as early as at the age of 15 with parental consent. This does not support the protection, growth and development of adolescent girls,â€ said Chikakuda, adding that with correct effort in all spheres, a Malawian girl child would live by her rights and not by chance.
She further said the story of Mary is just an example of hundreds of painful challenges many adolescent girls in the country are facing and her office is calling for everyoneâ€™s participation to save the future of such girls.
However, Chikakuda calls for a change of policies that relate to the girl child and asked government to table the Marriage Age Bill when Parliament reconvenes. She said early marriages is a serious factor that is affecting the success of many girls in the country.
Deputy Minister of Education Chikumbutso Hiwa, who was also touched by Maryâ€™s story, admitted that girls in the country are living at risk.
â€œThe fulfilment of adolescent girlsâ€™ rights remains a challenge in Malawi, with the adolescent girls being among the most vulnerable sub-group of people in the country. Many of them are being vulnerable because they are hard to reach, there is lack of access to jobs, education, health care, are voiceless and are victims of harmful cultural practices such as early marriages and human rights abuses,â€ said Hiwa, while pointing out that the battle needs everyoneâ€™s participation.
Agali communications officer Lorena Gomez Barris said more needs to be done to improve the plight of adolescent girls. She said the situation of girls in the country is worrisome, as early marriages continue to impede girlsâ€™ opportunities in education.