A Traditional Authority (T/A), who married young, is terminating child marriages to ensure that every child learns, writes our reporter BRENDA TWEA.
Born Chalendo McDonald in 1952, T/A Mwanza of Salima was forced to marry at 14.
The 66-year-old chief has no doubt she is struggling because she quit school before achieving her goals.
“Maybe I would have been working and addressing the challenges I currently face if I went to school. I cannot change my past, but I can do something to change the future of children,” she says.
The traditional leader is ending child marriages to ensure that every young person learns.
She has been sending girls rescued from early marriages back to school without leaving boys behind.
Now, she works with both boys and girls.
Mwanza Area Development Committee chairperson Mussa Jekiseni says keeping every child in school is key to achieving sustainable development.
“If children are educated, they will change this area,” he said.
Since 2016, nearly 1 300 dropouts have gone back to school following interventions by the chief and 655 village heads under her rule.
She has nullified 83 marriages involving girls below 18, the legal marriageable age and 51 teen mothers re-enrolled after giving birth.
“We are at war to end child marriages, not just reducing them. Previously, when a girl got pregnant, we would bring the parents together and marry her off. But this is not the solution. Now, we let them go back to school after giving birth. Their parents take care of the child while she learns,” she says.
When she gets reports of child marriages, Mwanza summons the children and their parents to discuss the matter.
“When they leave this place [the chief’s court], the marriage is over. We abide by the by-laws and we won’t relent,” she vows.
However, some parents insist on keeping their children in marriage.
Others, she says, offer village heads livestock to consent to these child marriages.
The traditional leader penalises them, with fines ranging from chickens to goats and she refers defilement cases to police.
“Child marriages are tricky. When a child marries, some parents feel relieved because the child is no longer under their care,” she explains.
ADCs work with mother groups in door-to-door visits to keep children remain in school.
Some parents engage mother groups to talk to their children who miss classes.
Traditional leaders, such as Mwanza and Senior Chief Kachindamoto of Dedza, have been instrumental in combating child marriages, HIV and Aids, harmful cultural practices and gender-based violence.
Mwanza was inspired by United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Girls Education and Women Empowerment (Gewe) project which phased out in 2016.
She has banned Nankwanya and Kamano to stop Gule Wamkulu traditional dance from luring pupils to drop out of school.
“If they are spotted, it is an offence. So we do not see them here anymore,” she brags.
Low access to sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) services, including pep talks and contraceptives, fuel dropout rates, early marriages and teen pregnancies.
Nearly half of girls in the country marry before their 18th birthday, UNFPA reports.
UNFPA works with government and non-governmental organisations to promote voluntary family planning.
UNFPA resident representative Young Hong states: “The idea is to ensure that everyone in productive age accesses SRHR information and services. Some youths travel miles and miles to get a condom or other contraceptives and over time they give up trying to access family planning methods.
“So we are trying to bring the services closer to them, making information available for them and helping them access whatever social assistance they need to confidently exercise their rights without interference,” she said.
Early pregnancies and lack of family planning affect children and illiterate mothers are likely to have children that stay in poverty.
Hong is concerned that the current birth rate in Malawi exerts increased pressure on government and families to feed and educate the children, as well as letting them live healthy lives.
Looking forward, she asks: “Without adequate resources to invest in producing the youth with relevant skill sets and good health to join the future economic changes, what will Malawi stand for?”