As the world celebrates Day of the Girl Child, thousands of girls in the country drop out of school every year to get married, missing out on their education and in the process adding more problems to the community.
Despite efforts from government and other non-governmental organisations like the Forum for African Women Educationists, (Fawema), Plan Malawi and Action Aid, there is still a long way to go before the war can be worn.
In much of the country, the importance of girls’ education is underrated on the part of parents and the community, particularly in rural areas where illiteracy levels are high.
Without question, early and forced marriage contribute to driving girls into a cycle of poverty, ill-health, illiteracy and powerlessness.
The UN predicts that child marriage will lead to more than 140 million girls becoming child brides in the decade leading up to 2020 if allowed to continue. This equates to 14 million child brides every year or nearly 39 000 girls married every day.
“It is sad that in this age some communities still believe that a girl child is not worthy investing in education. We believe improving education and school retention for girls in the rural areas is the only way of eliminating early and forced marriage. Research has shown that educated girls are more likely to have the skills, knowledge and confidence to claim their rights,” says Fawema executive director Hendrina Gyva.
She adds that sexual and reproductive health of married girls is significantly poorer than that of their unmarried counterparts.
“This is a health concern as well,” says Gyva.
Even after 50 years of independence, it is still common belief that the girl’s place is in the kitchen.
Because a girl child is not viewed in the same standing as her brothers in communities, she is not perceived to have the same skills or capabilities as her brother, and families believe there is less value in educating her.
This perception in turn affects the girl child as she starts to believe she is a lesser person than her brother and in the end she gives up on life.
“The problem is compounded more because of lack of role models here. We do not have educated women coming from this area to act as an inspiration to these girls. In the end these girls really believe they are better off married than wasting time in schools. It is a big problem,” observes head teacher at Malembo CDSS, Jarvis Chadulo in T/A Khongoni in Dedza on the plight facing the girl child.
Fawema has since engaged professional women who are in possession of power to visit rural schools and talk about the importance of education.
“I was inspired by the speech by Stella Mapemba [professional lawyer]. Now I believe it is only through education that I can get out of poverty. But it is not easy here because we do self-boarding as there are no hostels to accommodate us and some of my friends have been victims of rape by some of the villagers. Most girls opt to stay home and marry,” said 15-year-old Memory Phiri who is in Form Three at Malembo CDSS.
Malawi ranks ninth among countries with highest child marriages, according to a report by Plan UK, while Niger tops the list.
According to head teacher at Kabango CDSS in Dedza, Israel Ngozi early child marriages are affecting the education of a girl child because communities do not value giving education to girls.
“Girls are viewed as an economic burden. For families facing persistent poverty, marriage often seems like the best way to protect girls’ futures and make less the economic burden. The high costs of raising children means automatically the family will favour investing in sons rather than daughters and the only alternative for the girl child is marriage,” said Ngozi.
The schools are among the many places where Fawema operates to fight early marriages
Minister of Gender, Disability and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati says child marriage is both a violation of girls’ human rights and a hindrance to key development outcomes.
Kaliati believes education is the only way to keep girls off early marriages
“Most of the violence against our girls that force them out of school is because of lack of good learning environment. As government we are committed to campaigning against early marriage,” says Kaliati.