In our country, children remain the most vulnerable in the population. Belief patterns, exploitative attitudes, opportunism and poverty all militate against notable achievements made in the legal and policy environment and in the capacity of organisations providing child protection services.
Despite an enabling context I am not sure that those whose mandate is to protect children from abuse pay adequate attention to how marriages, particularly second generation marriages, systematically violate rights of children, perpetrate or condone violence against children, curtail their right to education and unwittingly throw a significant part of the young generation into the fangs of grinding poverty.
Many children find themselves in the care of step mothers or fathers because of unilateral selfish choices their parents make. They think that children are not important to the making of such decisions or perhaps they do not understand that a second marriage is a painfully emotional transition to any child. Even more critical, many parents who get into these unions do not seem to give any serious thought to what implications re-marriage has on inheritance of their property.
In so few of such marriages are children happy. Men and to a lesser extent women who are blinded by excitement, sacrifice their children and take no notice whatsoever of the ill-treatment that the children go through at the hands of their spouse. Stories abound where parents evict and ignore completely children from previous marriages without compunction just to please a spouse. We know that men are the greatest culprits in this hideous behaviour, although recent trends show women too abandoning children for marriage.
It is emotionally painful to children when mothers sacrifice their own girls to sexual exploitation in order to please their new man or they choose to ignore and never talk about the real risk of such abuse just to maintain peace. In days when satanic rituals and other primitive beliefs abound it cannot be wise for a mother to assume, let alone believe that all is fine with her daughters in a family of this nature. As I completed this article, Weekend Nation of January 18 reported the case of a 41-year-old man in Nkhotakota who made his 21-year-old stepdaughter pregnant in a get rich ritual.
Not only do some fathers in these marriages sexually abuse stepchildren, mothers are known to have affairs with senior sons of the husband. In days when the cougar phenomenon is catching up, the risk is even greater. Equally common are instances of children having sexual relationships among themselves, because after all they are not blood-related or as ways of getting at the parents for putting them at risk through re-marrying. Today there are a number of families founded on such incestuous relationships, all because of selfish choices parents make and the blinding excitement of a second love.
Physical conflicts are always part of families comprising children from different upbringing. I suspect family wars are increasing in our society in part due to children under the leadership of divided parents. Almost all the time, the cause is distribution of power and control over resources. It is hardly surprising that one result of unplanned re-marriages is loss of the right to property of eligible children. Undeserving children, often from the mother’s side capitalise on the authority of the mother in the home and the condescending attitude of the stepfather to take charge of property, leaving the rightful heirs in the cold.
Today, many children loitering in cities can be traced back to failed second generation families. Some of them have cosy childhood stories and share the trauma of living with strange siblings and a biological parent who stopped caring. Poorly managed re-marriages, like broken first marriages, lead children to alcohol abuse, violence, theft and early pregnancies. In the long-term the greatest impact is poverty for children who started life with joy, hope and ambition.
Of course it has to be admitted that not all such families put children at risk, but the majority do. Not all lead to rightful heirs losing property, but most do and if they do not they create conflict which sometimes leads to irrational use of family resources. But there is a constant to this: all such marriages disorient children and parents alike and relationships are bruised irreparably.
The bottom line is that families out there are placing children at risk. Their well-being is being seriously compromised. Adults are making choices in total disregard of the rights of their own children, and so the family is a good entry point for child protection experts to intervene.
—The author is country director for Sightsavers International in Lilongwe, writing in his personal capacity.