Child marriages continue to be one of the major contributing factors to failed socio-economic development the country is facing. It robs the nation of future leaders, girls in particular who end up being forced into child and early marriages. HOWARD MLOZI speaks to KASUZI MBALUKO the More Than Brides Alliance country coordinator to find out what strategies the NGO has put in place to combat child and early marriages in the country:
Give us a brief introduction of More Than Brides Alliance?
The ‘Marriage: No Child’s Play’ is a five year programme, from 2016 to 2020, whose aim is to reduce child marriages and its adverse effects on young women and girls under the More Than Brides Alliance. This Alliance is implementing the programme in Malawi, Niger, India and Pakistan.
In Malawi, the programme is being implemented by Youth Net and Counseling (Yoneco) and Girls Empowerment Network (Genet) while Save the Children is providing technical support. The rationale of the programme is that young people, especially girls, are able to decide if and when to marry if they are empowered to make informed decisions, if their protective assets are built, and if their community respects their rights.
Futher, the alliance offers a multi-pronged approach of equipping adolescents with necessary skills and information, increasing their access to services and opportunities, and building their agency, while at the same time shifting social norms related to marriage formation, sexual reproductive health rights and gender equality.
What prompted the programme to be implemented in Malawi?
Malawi is ranked one of the countries with high child marriages in the world. Other countries in Africa such as Niger and Mali, also with very high rates of child marriages, were also selected. It is clear that child marriage perpetuates generational cycles of poor health, illiteracy and deepening poverty. At the same time, it is a lifetime of socio economic exclusion of child brides and leads to feminisation of poverty. The programme supports the efforts of the government in its plans of eradicating poverty.
Why should Malawi trust the new efforts by the More Than Brides Alliance to tackle child marriage?
Different efforts will help to bring different energies in the fight against child marriage. The problem of child marriages in Malawi requires innovative, integrated and comprehensive ways of dealing with the problem. The ‘Marriage: No Child’s Play’ programme is supporting efforts to reach out to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights workers, youth-friendly services workers, community and religious leaders, law enforcement officials such as child protection workers, the police, the judicial officers, teachers and community members in general. Advocacy efforts will be amplified.
The programme is unique due to a combination of the partners’ expertise in girl empowerment, education, economic empowerment, child protection, Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (ASRHR), building an enabling environment at all levels, and research, which enables the partners to implement an evidence-based and comprehensive programme. The programme will target those communities who are more at risk of marrying their girls off at an early age. Those with strong traditions and ‘rite of passage’, that leads to sexual initiations at a young age and early marriage will be targeted. Girls that drop-out will be given special attention, as well as those coming from poor or more vulnerable families. Gender equality is a strong component in the comprehensive sexual education curriculum and is included in the programme’s approach in economic empowerment. The work at the community, district and national levels includes awareness raising on gender inequalities and have the objective to contribute to changing social norms and gender perspectives. As such, they will enable the environment to be aware of gender discrimination and to be supportive to increasing gender equalities. Progress in gender equitable values will be monitored over time. Since girls are generally more vulnerable than boys, the programme will focus on girls in reducing drop-out rates and supporting livelihood opportunities.
Why do you think Malawi is failing to make any progress?
The problem of child marriage has different facets. There are economic factors such as poverty, bride price/dowry and lack of economic opportunities. Statistics show that most rural Malawians live below the poverty line, therefore, economic reasons force girls to get married early, to help pay off debts of the family. Not all girls are forced into early marriages, some also view marriage as an escape from poverty.
Many parents are illiterate and unaware of the benefits of education. These reasons push adolescents, especially girls, to drop out of school. Poverty is widespread and women and girls generally score low on development indicators and lag behind in many areas of life. There are also social factors that include gender inequality, underestimation of the harm child marriage causes, negative consequences of not marrying off ones daughters early which are perceived as worse, school dropout, limited education opportunities, unsafe school environment and, inequitable gender norms and taboos.
There is a litany of cultural factors on why Malawi is not making an impact in eliminating child marriages. There are child sexually abusive traditions such as kusasa fumbi. Also, there are factors such as patriarchy, value placed on honour and chastity, contextual meaning of puberty, decision-making on pregnancy and child bearing. On a different level, there are political factors that include national laws, national and sub-national policies, customary laws, political will implementation of legislation and policy and, accountability mechanisms.
What is the impact of child marriage on the country’s social and economic development?
Every day in the world, more than 41 000 girls marry before the age of 18. 1 out of 3 girls in the developing world is married before the age of 18. Child marriage negatively affects the health and rights of adolescent girls and severely impedes global development and poverty eradication efforts. It violates girls’ basic human rights. When girls are forced to marry, they often drop out of school, may face serious health complications and even death from early pregnancy and childbearing, and are at greater risk of HIV infection and intimate partner violence. n