Arranged marriages take bizarre forms in the country just when the United Nations reports that one in two women marry before their 18th birthday. Malawi News Agency (Mana) reporter LEORNARD MASAULI writes.
She refuses to rush into marriage, but Yamikani Nyirongo’s childhood dream to become a doctor was almost shattered when her grandfather told her to quit school and marry her father’s age-mate.
Early this year, the 15-year-old’s grandfather Anthony Tembo received dowry worth K176 000 from Lyson Shaba, 42, a mysterious suitor based in South Africa.
Yamikani was still under pressure from the guardian who was supposed to safeguard her dreams when she sat Primary School Leaving Certificate (PSLCE) examinations at Mhalaunda Primary School this year.
“I have never met the man he wanted me to marry. I cried day and night. I don’t love him. I don’t want to marry. I will marry when I finish school,” the teenager says.
Yamikani, from Mchapansalu Village in Mzimba, has lived with the gogo since her parents migrated to South Africa in search of better economic odds.
When they left, little did they know that their daughter would be a subject of rampant forced and arranged marriages in which underage girls in Mzimba end up marrying men they do not know in real life.
Despite Yamikani’s passion for school, the grandpa kept luring her with a photograph of the prospective husband. He used a part of the dowry to fast-track the processing of a passport to South Africa.
She resisted the move even when her arranged husband’s parents came to take her to their home.
The snub forced her grandparent to banish her to the in-laws’ home where eight women reportedly took turns to counsel her on how to handle a man and how to please the husband in the photograph.
However, Yamikani, who refused to spend a second with the elderly man awaiting her over 1 000km away, fled her new home one night.
She was putting up at a friend’s house when she was rescued by members of a community-based human rights committee formed by Malawi Carer.
Malawi Carer district programme coordinator Hendrix Mphangamo said: “Like many others, the child would have vanished to South Africa assisted by unknown transporters who would have even exploited her on the way.”
The rights organisation is working with the police and community members to deal with the silent cases of child trafficking and arranged marriages.
“We involved the police to deal with the case. The girl was back in school after we invited the parents from South Africa, resolved the matter, told the grandparent to return the dowry and let the girl continue chasing her dream.”
The parents, who were depriving the girl of basic needs for her life and education, confessed being negligent and promised to support her till she achieves her potential.
In Mzimba, parents often marry off girls in exchange for cows and cash, but the struggle to ensure girls remain in school is at risk as the demand for men working in South Africa is high. Some guardians clamour for blankets, clothes and other goodies from abroad.
In some cases, the suitors in South Africa task their aunts to hunt for “marriageable girls from home”.
The law makes it illegal for anyone to marry girls aged below 18, but the “marriageable girls” seldom rules out minors.
In May and June, three other cases were rescued from the mazy world of arranged marriages in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kampingo Sibande.
As was the case with Yamikani, the men abroad dispatch their photos to aunts or any other person asked to recruit the marriage partner for whoever it may concern.
“Sometimes, the women get a shock of their life. When they arrive in South Africa, they come face to face with old men and end up marrying a partner almost the age of their fathers,” says Eswazini child protection worker Yohane Chikwalimba.
District social welfare officer Grace Mvula urges M’mbelwa District Council to be wary of the high demand for passports in the district instead of rushing to sign the application forms.
“The council must be observant when signing passport forms because behind some of them are the victims of arranged marriages,” she explains.
Paramount Chief M’mbelwa, whose territory transcends Yamikani’s home, is pushing for bylaws to punish all village heads who allow young girls to marry before their 18th birthday.
Presently, one in two girls marry before age 18 in the country.
Inkosi ya Makosi M’mbelwa said it is worrisome Mzimba has high rates of cases of early marriages.
While the wait for action continues, Yamikani is among a lucky few who were saved just when it mattered most.
However, there are many more girls who fall into the trap and silently slip out of the country. The unwanted brides grow up being told girls are born to marry and standing up against the dictates of their guardians and the elderly remains a taboo.