Deputy Minister of Education Madalitso Wirima Kambauwa says sensitisation remains crucial in ending child marriage, which remains one of the main causes of school dropouts in Malawi.
According to the 2018 National Strategy on Ending Child Marriage, among female dropouts, 43 percent drop out of school because of either marriage or pregnancy.
She made the remarks in Lilongwe on Wednesday during the second part of a three series panel discussion on ending child marriage in Malawi, organized by U.S-based NGO, Developing Radio Partners.
Kambauwa said discrimination against girls who go back to school after being revoked from child marriages or giving birth has been one reason why girls are reluctant to return.
“Most of these young girls want to go back to school but the environment does not allow them to be free citizens, she said. “They are oftentimes bullied by their fellow learners, making it hard for them to concentrate in class.”
Discrimination and stigma can only be eliminated, she said, if people value the education of the girl child regardless of the situation she is in.
“Every child has the right to access quality education. Having a child or coming from a marriage does not mean someone is not worthy to be a student. Let the community and the schools stop abusing a girl child for her past mistakes. We need to focus on the future.
“Ministry of Education currently works with mother groups, Parents and Teachers Associations, non-governmental organisations, among others, to make sure that girls who return to school are comfortable in their learning environment,” she said.
Parliamentary Committee of Social and Community Affairs chairperson Savelo Kafwafwa said much as Malawi has a number of laws deterring child marriage, they are not fully implemented on the ground.
“Most serious cases of child marriage, defilement are not highlighted enough for perpetrators to know that the laws need to be taken seriously,” he said.
“I think it’s high time some cases are given audience for communities to be aware that if you marry off a young girl, as a parent you will also face the law. Also the perpetrators if they see someone getting a stiff punishment for themselves, I think we can reduce such cases in the country.”
He also expressed concern that the laws were too lenient because some offenders are given soft penalties.
“We need our courts to use specific laws when giving out sentences. For example the Child Care Justice and Protection Act gives a stiffer punishment on defilement than the Penal Code does. So where possible let the Protection Act be used to punish offenders,” Kafwafwa said.
He added that more funding is needed to enforce the child marriage laws, and that more attention needs to be given to children when their marriages are annulled.
“We talk of ending child marriages, but what happens when the girl child has been brought back home from the marriage? We need to find ways of empowering the family or helping the child through school if we do not want to see her go back to the marriage,” he said.
Malawi Police Service (MPS) Central West Region community policing coordinator Alexander Ngwala said child marriages can be prevented if everyone plays a role in ending the vice. He said by reporting the cases when they occur through the necessary platforms, Malawi can eliminate child marriages.
Contrary to the 2015 Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Act, which effectively banned child marriage, in practice child marriages continue to occur in some parts of Malawi.
According to the Ministry of Gender, Children and Community Development, 42 percent of women in Malawi are married before the age of 18 and 12 percent are married before the age of 15.
Malawi is ranked 12th out of 195 countries in the world with the highest number of child marriages.
Edna Tarnazio from Chibwana Village, Traditional Authority Mlonyeni in Mchinji, is a mother who once saw her teenage child go into marriage.
“When she told me she was pregnant and that the man had accepted responsibility, she said she would like to go and live with the man who was at that time in secondary school,” she said.
Her daughter was in standard 8 at Chapanama Primary School when she found out she was pregnant.
Tarnazio said after being in marriage for almost a week, her daughter came back home and apologised and asked her mother to welcome her back.
As a parent who dearly loves her daughter, she forgave and encouraged her to go back to school.
Her daughter has this year written her Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education examinations and Edna is now worried about how she is going to afford school fees when the daughter gets selected to secondary school.
She, however, remains a champion of ending child marriage in her community by advising her fellow parents to desist from marrying off their children, as doing so is not a means to an end but adding fuel to existing poverty.
The 2015-2016 Demographic and Health Survey, the most recent survey available, shows a slight increase in marriage among women ages 15 to 19, with 23.5 percent being married or in union compared to 19.5 percent of those aged 15 to 19 in 2010.
According to the 2018 National Strategy on Ending Child Marriage, in Malawi the rate of child marriage is 7 times higher among girls than boys, with 12 percent of girls being married before they are 15 compared with only 1.2 percent for men.