By Shorai Nyambalo-Ng’ambi
When her father suddenly died in 2007, Esmie Mwenyekaka lost hope for a better future.
All of a sudden, she had to leave the comfort of town and embrace village life at M’balula, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chowe in Mangochi. The grim reality of poverty soon caught up with her in the rural setting, where community members pressurised her to marry early as an escape from everyday constraints.
The community then organised suitors for her, promising to take her to South Africa.
Just like some districts in Malawi, Mangochi is the main sender of casual labourers to South Africa. When a girl marries one of the migrant workers, it is regarded as a bailout from poverty—a big achievement to both the girl and her parents.
“A lot of men came looking for girls to marry. They promised us that we would go to South Africa once we marry and I said no to that,” says Esmie.
What was more shocking to Esmie was that even her close friends encouraged her to marry before her 18th birthday.
She narrates: “When the situation became unbearable, I ran away from my father’s village to my mother’s home where problems persisted. Later, I sought refuge at my aunt’s home.
“I enrolled at Nasenga Community Day Secondary School where I got pregnant when I was 19. I didn’t write exams that year. I dropped out.”
Typical of Malawi’s youthful population, Mangochi is among the districts with the highest proportion of teenagers of who have started childbearing. They constitute 48 percent.
Child marriages, even forced ones, remain rampant in Malawi even though the Constitution prohibits girls and boys from marrying before the age of 18.
Most girls get married as early as 12 to 15 years, despite vigorous campaigns by some chiefs and development organisations.
This slows the global goal to end poverty and inequalities. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) number five calls for gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls by 2030.
To achieve this, Malawi need to empower girls like Esmie, hear their voices and work on ensuring their rights to a better future.
The UNFPA-Unicef Global Programme to End Child Marriage promotes the rights of adolescent girls to avert marriage and pregnancy and help them achieve their aspirations through education and alternative pathways.
“Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to remain in school. They have worse economic and health outcomes than their unmarried peers, which are eventually passed down to their own children, further straining a country’s capacity to provide quality health and education services,” Unicef notes.
Esmie was aware of these consequences when she refused to rush into marriage.
Realising that early marriage would consign her to life-long poverty, she went back to school after giving birth, much to the surprise of her neighbours.
“When people heard I had gone back to school, they started pestering my aunt to get me married. They even took my clothes from my hostel so that I go back to my village to marry. But I didn’t want this to happen to me,” she recounts.
Just like that, she began fighting two battles: resisting early marriage and fetching school fees as well as other necessities.
As she was brooding over school fees, her dad’s pension funds came out and she got her share of K7 500 which she used for her tuition. However, it was not enough. She had to drop mid-way of the school term and do some extra work during school holidays at Mangochi Boma where she was earning K5 200 per month.
“I opened a bank account and accumulated up to K35 000. When I returned to school, the teachers received me well because they liked me due to my good behaviour. I also received a lot of support from people in the community like T/A Chowe and his wife,” explains Esmie.
Her struggle eased when she was put on a bursary scheme that also refunded all her hard-earned school fees.
“This was the turning point in my life. From that moment, everything flowed well, life became easier and I knew better things were coming,” she explains smilingly.
Like all learners on bursary, during school holidays, she took advantage of her holidays to encourage her peers against dropping out of school.
Although the school had inadequate infrastructure to support girl education, she worked hard and obtained Malawi School Certificate of Education with 26 points in 2014. This enabled her to enrol into a Community Development Course at Soche Technical College in Blantyre.
In February 2016, Esmie went to South Africa to do a leadership course to strengthen her skill set in looking after girls who have gone through early pregnancy.
Despite the timely support from different organisations, the community continued to support her.
In fact, T/A Chowe facilitated her nomination into a midwifery course under the Safe Motherhood Programme introduced by Malawi Government 2012 to enlist community-based school leavers as one of improving staffing levels in rural community health centres.
“I decided not to rush into marriage. With patience, I found a husband who is a graduate of University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, and we now have an 11-month-old child, Firaaz,” says Esmie.
Her story personifies the desired gains of global campaigns to protecting women and girls in all spheres of life.
During the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, countries unanimously adopted the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing the rights of not only women but girls.
Twenty-six years after adopting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the agreement remains a powerful foundation for assessing progress on gender equality.
The declaration calls for a world where every girl and woman can realise all her rights, live free from violence, attend and complete school, choose when and whom to marry and earn equal pay for equal work.
T/A Chowe describes Esmie as “a young lady with a lion heart”, who remained determined to learn and achieve her dreams despite pressure from the community and family to marry after an early pregnancy.
“These are the girls we need to advocate for education and against child marriage. She is a role model in our community. We use her often to educate other girls on the importance of remaining in school,” he says.
The chief says community involvement in girl education, collaboration between local leaders and religious bodies, community sensitisation meetings and support from local NGOs have helped ramp up the campaign for girl education.
This has helped girls like Esmie to return to school and lead independent and productive lives.
But Esmie has a word of caution to girls who may want to quit schooling: “Be patient because it pays in future to be in school. Problems are part of life and poverty is not a deterrent to education.
Unlike in the past, now we have a lot of development organisations that promote girl education and are ready to support you. This is an opportunity for you to go to school and work hard so that your future becomes brighter.”
On October 11, the International Day of the Girl Child, Unicef reiterated its belief that promoting girl education is key to fighting poverty and empowering girls to have control over their lives—ensuring their right to survival, protection, participation and development.
Unicef Malawi’s gender specialist Christobel Chakwana says: “At the heart of this special day lies a vision and goal to enable our girls, who have been denied space to voice out their views, to become the game changer.
“Equipping girls with education can shape the future of tomorrow’s Malawian women for better. Everyone must ensure that girls are given space to be heard and contribute to the development agenda at all levels.”
During the commemoration marking 25 years of progress under the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Unicef launched a campaign with girls to amplify their voices and stand up for their rights.
This year’s theme—My voice, our equal future—is an opportunity to reimagine a better world inspired by girls. n
*Nyambalo-Ng’ambi works for Unicef Malawian