On March 23 2020 came the sudden closure of schools across Malawi. The standstill caused by Covid-19 left children idling at home for six months, not sure when they would safely return to class.
Sixteen-year-old Lucy fell pregnant for a second time. The first pregnancy came at the age of 14 in 2018 when she had to drop out of school for a year to give birth instead of pursuing her dream to become a nurse.
“I was gutted. The first pregnancy left me a year behind my agemates. Then coronavirus disrupted everything all over again,” explains Lucy, a second-born in a family of four in Khomani Village in Mitundu, south of Lilongwe City
“My 19-year-old neighbour and I agreed to marry because we thought schools would never reopen again.”
Her second pregnancy came four months into the suspenseful wait. About 13 000 girls got pregnant and 40 000 married before their 18th birthdays during the emergency school closure, reports the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare.
Safer in school
The surge, which contradicts a three-year-old law which outlaws marriages involving boys and girls aged below 18, confirmed that children are safer in school.
Lucy regrets sneaking out of her parents’ home in the night to marry her fellow teenager, now repeating Standard Eight.
“On 22 July 2020, I packed my clothes in a plastic carrier bag and left. I thought marriage was rosy, but it wasn’t. Both of us were young and jobless,” she explains.
The couple, which looked up to their parents for everything, separated within a month after a mother group persuaded Lucy to return to school after a miscarriage.
In January 2021, she re-enrolled in Standard Six despite being in Standard Seven when she left.
However, learning stopped once more in the wake of the second wave of Covid-19, but she remained resolute.
“I don’t want to slip again. Marriage is no solution to poverty,” she says.
“During the brief marriage, I lived in a little shop that couldn’t accommodate a single bed. My husband used to beat me, I was starved and the shame of begging and slavish piecework in neighbouring fields was too much. I’m still too young to marry.”
Lucy salutes the child protectors who encouraged her to leave.
“They did well. They rekindled my desire to return to school after the miscarriage and my parents welcomed me kindly. My mother even accepted to take care of the child while I go to school,” she says.
At school, Lucy gives her peers friendly advice against premarital and transactional sex, which fuels dropout rates, teen pregnancies, child marriage and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
For her, the spike in early pregnancies and marriages is a wake-up call for the government and its partners to sensitise parents and community leaders to safeguard young people during emergencies.
“Knowledge is power. If you give girls accurate information, they will stay in school, share experiences, delay their sex debuts and beat peer pressure which landed me in trouble,” Lucy explains.
Nearly half of all girls in Malawi are already married by the age of 18 while a third of those aged 15-19 have begun childbearing, accounting for a quarter of all pregnancies.
However, adolescents’ fertility remains high due to limited sexuality education as well as prevailing myths and misconceptions associated with contraceptive use.
With support from the Swedish Government, Unicef, UNFPA, World Health Organisation, UNAids and Malawi Government are delivering an integrated package of sexual and reproductive health services, HIV sensitive interventions and sexual and gender-based violence prevention.
The joint programme helps young people such as Lucy make informed decisions about relationships and sexuality as well as provide care and treatment to adolescents living with HIV.
Lucy’s mother, Bertha Masina, says parents have a primary responsibility to safeguard young people.
She says: “Teen pregnancies and child marriages were already rampant before the pandemic, so we need to educate most parents to value girls’ education instead of pushing them to marry.
“Here, neighbours laugh at you if you keep an adolescent girl in school.”
Early pregnancies and marriages constitute the most tolerated form of sexual violence against girls below the marriageable age.
A 2013 national survey supported by Unicef revealed that one in five girls experiences sexual abuse before reaching 18.
We must do more
Unicef supports the government to train district social welfare officers and community child protectors to swiftly manage cases of child abuse, rights violations and exploitation.
Bridget Mwale, assistant social welfare officer in Lilongwe, says the case management skills became handy when thousands of girls quit school for marriage during the school break.
“The pandemic has shown us that parents, schools, community leaders and child protection workers should do more to protect young people and keep them in school. Had we acted swiftly, the boy wouldn’t have impregnated the girl twice,” she says
Lucy is one of three teen mothers at her school. Seven girls who got pregnant during the lengthy school closure did not return.
Says headteacher Rose Gwande: “When I discussed Lucy’s situation with the mother group members, they made follow-up visits and persuaded the couple to separate. She obliged and teachers advised her to focus on her future.
“As a woman, I’m their role model. When a girl learns, she can become what she wants. The readmission policy gives teen mothers and other re-admitted learners a second chance.” n