Mary Chindamba of Chunda Village on Chizumulu Island, Likoma District is not your ordinary 13-year-old. At her tender age, she is married.
She quit school while in Standard Five at Semo Primary School, on the island. Her marriage was arranged by her parents, who have already pocketed a bride price of around K200 000 (US$619).
“I can confirm that Mary will not be with us when we open school for the 2013/14 academic year,” says Michael Kanjaya, a head teacher at Semo Primary School.
Kanjaya has only been posted to the school, but he is alarmed by the high girl school dropout rate at the school.
“Mary came and told me her situation. I tried to reason with her, but she insisted she is not intelligent enough to continue with school,” says Kanjaya, adding Mary is the third girl to drop out of school for marriage during the last term alone, while two others at the same school discontinued after they fell pregnant.
Likoma District commissioner Charles Mwawembe says the district council is not aware of the trend on the island.
“But if, indeed, these things are happening, then it is very unfortunate and we will look into the issue,” Mwawembe says.
Although Mwawembe says Likoma District Council does not have data on the scale of the problem, he understands that early marriages are a challenge on the island.
In fact, the situation at the island is a reflection of national figures depicting the scale of the challenge at hand.
Nearly 50 percent of girls, the 2010 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey shows, marry before they are 18 years old. Even worse, one in seven girls in the country marries before they reach the age of 15. The situation is common in rural areas.
District education manager (DEM) for Likoma Nameson Ngwira says his office is aware of the dropout cases, as it receives monthly updates from schools.
Kanjaya bemoaned a common tendency on the island where people address young girls as ama, a respectful Tonga word denoting ‘an adult female’.
“I blame it on parents and guardians in the area. When a girl reaches Standard Six, they begin addressing her as ama, to mean she is a woman. In so doing, the girls feel they are old enough to get married,” says Kanjaya.
He adds that many people at Chizumulu do not value education, believing that even uneducated people can get rich.
Monica Ndalama, a shop owner at Chizumulu Market, says there is also a culture of parents arranging marriages for their children, calling each other ayemba afterwards, meaning they are now related through marriage.
As such, children know who they are going to marry from a very early age and that encourages them to marry early.
“Most parents are interested in the pride price. For a Standard Eight girl, a bride price can be as high as K200 000, while for someone who dropped out in lower primary could fetch between K60 000 (US$185) and K90 000 (US$278),” she says.
It is clear that a mix-up of attitudes and poverty is the factor behind the culture. Chizumulu Island is a predominantly fishing community which regularly receives traders from as far as Lilongwe, Nkhata Bay, Mozambique and other parts who come to order fish for sell elsewhere.
“Some of the girls are easily enticed by these traders,” says Ndalama.
The girls are lured by money mainly because they want to buy Chinese merchandise sold at Likoma Market, which is highly fashionable on the island.
“We receive reports from schools on girls who drop out of school for marriages. Mostly, it is due to poverty. Chizumulu is a small, infertile island with little land for farming. As such, poverty levels are high because the island relies on the mainland for food and essential items,” says Ngwira.
He, however, is hopeful that the situation will normalise, saying his office has instituted mother groups in communities to sensitise communities on the evils of early marriages.
“We have established mother groups to work with parents and teacher associations and school management committees, and they have already helped to bring back to school some girls who dropped out,” he says.
Locals say lately, the Anglican Church, which is the main denomination on the island, has also intensified teaching and warning that government will punish perpetrators of this practice.
“Apart from the church which uses church services to spread its messages, there are no other organisations doing a similar job,” observes Ndalama.
The unavailability of child rights organisations and recreational facilities on the island is partly to blame for the high incidences of early marriages on the island, according to Stanley Khungeni, a nurse at Chizumulu Health Centre.
“Here life is boring. There are no recreational facilities, no newspapers, no mobile phone network, nothing. Now if we adults find it boring, what more with the youth?” he laments.
Perhaps non-governmental organisations implementing girl child projects in the country should consider reaching out to the island to redeem the girl child, as HIV testing and counselling (HTC) regional supervisor for North Nicholas Eyomo suggests.
“Our office intends to train 40 peer educators on the twin islands (of Likoma and Chizumulu) in HIV and Aids, early marriages and other aspects of their lives,” he says.
Indeed, youths on the islands, such as Mary, deserve to access the information and awareness that their fellow youths on the mainland are getting from various organisations.