At the age of 13, Alice (not real name) from Chakwiya Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Makata in Blantyre, lives in psychological pain. She has had sexual intercourse with a 47 year-old man under duress.
“Soon after the initiation ceremony, my grandmother gave me a house,” she begins her story. “saying I am a grown up person and should be sleeping in an own house. I was happy to know that I had grown up. However, I did not know what was behind this.”
She never knew her grandmother had a mission to marry her off.
“One day, my grandmother introduced me to a man in our neighbourhood. He started visiting me frequently and later on started bringing different gifts to entice me to the extent that he started defiling me. I complained to my grandmother, but she did nothing. I suspected foul play,” she recalls.
Alice says she regrets leaving her parents in Kasungu to stay with her grandmother in Blantyre. She says upon getting to Blantyre, her grandmother sent her for initiation.
“She was supportive in everything and I was surprised that she ignored this issue. I even tried to approach some people in the neighbourhood, but I was surprised that they took it lightly, saying the man was coming to me because I am beautiful. I was not satisfied and I decided to report the man to his wife, but she, too attacked me, saying I was lying to damage her husband’s reputation,” explains Alice.
This, she says, forced her to take up the matter with authorities and she first approached A Self Help Assistance Programme (Asap), an organisation implementing communities’ rights awareness and advocacy project in the area. She reported to one of the organisation’s Star Circle (SC) groups. The SC primarily focuses on helping marginalised groups.
Joy Jalani, councillor for Mudi Ward says it is through the SC that the issue was taken to another level.
“After I got the news from the SC, we reported the matter to police. The man was arrested and is now serving a six-year jail term at Chichiri Prison,” says Jalani, adding that they learnt later that it was an arranged marriage by her grandmother.
He adds that the girl started to panic when the grandmother threatened to chase her if she did not marry him. The old woman, aged 80, did not give up after the failed plot and she influenced the girl to marry a 19 year-old in the area, but the boy’s family stopped the marriage after appreciating that she was too young for marriage.
Alice’s story is, but just a mirror of the situation on the ground. Despite several efforts to stop early marriages, most girls in the country are being married off at a tender age.
In Mulanje, Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) rescued a 14-year-old girl early this year. The girl, from T /A Mabuka was forced at the age of 12 to marry a 22-year-old man. She has a baby.
Sadly, most of the early marriages are facilitated by parents and guardians.
The 2012 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) child marriage profile for Malawi reveals that child marriage occurs more frequently among girls who are least educated, poorest and living in rural areas.
“Sixty-six percent of women aged 20-24, with no education and 62 percent with primary education, were married or in union at the age of 18 compared to only 16 percent of women with secondary education or higher,” reads the report in part.
It adds that on average, one out of two girls will be married by their 18th birthday. In 2010, the report says half of the women between 20 and 24 years of age were married or in union before turning 18.
Again, a 2014 proposed programme model on ending child marriages in Southern Africa by International Centre for Research on Women and Plan International shows that Malawi bears the 11th highest rate of child marriage globally and ranks second in the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) sub-region.
However, there are several factors contributing to this scenario. Research shows that poverty, lack of parental care, orphanhood and cultural beliefs are some of the key factors.
In T/A Makata, Asap’s field officer Dorothy Khwekhwerere says cultural beliefs have worsened the practice. She reveals that initiation ceremonies, which recommend young girls to sleep with older men as part of sexual cleansing (Kuchotsa fumbi) introduces girls to early sex and then marriage.
“We learnt that since Alice started to sleep in her own house, many men took advantage and were giving her money to entice her. A number of men have been arrested for defiling young girls in the area, but the practice is still rampant,” says Khwekhwerere, adding that there are 10 girls who were forced into marriages and they are trying to rescue them.
Trophina Limbani, Blantyre district social welfare officer laments increased cases of defilement is the district. She says on average her office records 25 to 30 cases a month.
“So far we have trained communities in 117 villages around Blantyre to take action whenever such cases occur. Government is also training people in villages on defilement case management. There are also child protection officers in the villages. All this is to ensure that cases of defilement are no longer there,” says Limbani.
While these are commendable steps, more has to be done to protect girls such as Alice from sexual abuses including early marriages.
A report from the just-ended Global Child Summit indicates that defilement in southern African remains the worst crime facing children.
Scout Association of Malawi executive director Steve Kanene attended the forum and says: “The meeting observed increased harmful cultural rituals such as that if you have sex with a young girl, chances are high to be promoted at workplace, protects body from bad omen and cures HIV and Aids. It is time the judiciary stands up and mete only stiffer punishments to defilers as demanded by section 138 of the Penal Code.” n