As schools gradually reopen, a 15-year-old disguised as Aida will not return to class because she is three months pregnant.
The Form One learner at St Joseph Community Day Secondary School in Rumphi is among hundreds of girls impregnated during the suspension of schools to reduce coronavirus transmission.
“I had nothing much to do, except spending more time with my boyfriend,” she explains, bemoaning protracted uncertainty over the reopening of schools.
The indecision curtailed last month left boys and girls in risky sexual practices fuelling teen pregnancies, child marriages and dropout rates.
“Since I am pregnant, I’m being forced to marry my boyfriend,” she says.
Mwawi Mweso, a mother group member in Traditional Authority Mwalweni, says it is sad that some parents force pregnant teens into marriage.
“It seems even parents lost hope. They pushed young children into marriage and it wasn’t easy to rescue them,” she says.
According to district social welfare officer Joshua Luhana, Rumphi recorded 76 child marriages from March to July and 311 teenage pregnancies between January and June.
“This is worrisome, but tricky. Some parents shield men who impregnate underage girls. It makes it difficult to prosecute men who marry or defile these girls. Their parents think marriage is an achievement,” he explains.
Child marriages and teen pregnancy in Malawi were already rampant before the country’s first coronavirus cases were detected in Lilongwe. However, the lengthy closure of school to disrupt coronavirus spread is blamed for the reported boom.
According to the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Surveys, nearly half of Malawian women marry before their 18th birthday and 30 percent got pregnant by the age of 19.
Ministry of Education spokesperson Chikondi Chimala says a nationwide survey is in the final stages to track teenage pregnancies and child marriages during the sudden recess caused by coronavirus.
However, Mangochi has reported 4 950 teen pregnancies, with 119 girls aged between 10 and 14. This is a 12.5 percent surge from 4 318 between the same period last year.
Phalombe reported 5 447 teenage pregnancies from January to May 2020.
Girls who become mothers in their teens are more likely to quit schooling and suffer deadly complications of childbearing.
George Jobe, executive director for Malawi Health Equity Network says the boom in teen pregnancies and marriages is a human rights issue that calls for improved access to sexual reproductive health among the youth during this pandemic.
He explains: “Teen pregnancies have numerous negative impacts, including fistula which requires a lot of resources to repair.
“Where there is pregnancy, there was unprotected sex which may result in sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Not only the health sector will be negatively affected. This is dangerous to the future of Malawi.”
Women’s Legal ResourceCentre executive director Maggie Kathewera-Banda says teen pregnancies and child marriages shatter girls’ futures.
“The more girls drop out of school, the more we are developing an illiterate population and the more they are disempowered,” she says.
Kathewera-Banda backs the reopening of schools, saying some pregnancies result from gender-based violence faced by girls stuck at home.
Studies in Malawi show most girls are sexually attacked in their homes by people who are supposed to protect them.
She states: “We need to develop a society that looks at girls as human beings with rights, not sex objects which can be used for their desires.
“We need to empower girls to withstand peer pressure and the male folks should help build the lives of girls, not destroy them.”
Minister of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati says government will conduct a follow-up survey to ascertain the reported surge in child rights cases.
She urges parents and guardians to protect every girl from rights violations and harmful cultural practices so she can return to school and fulfil her potential.
She said:”Parents should realise that they have the primary responsibility to protect, care and support their children. Now that children are staying more at home, the responsibility of parents is huge.
“The law is very clear: parents will be taken to task for failing to protect their children or for perpetrating any form of abuse.”
Kaliati urges victim support units, community policing fora, mother groups, community child protection committees and care groups to safeguard children in their communities.