On this day in 2001, a baby girl was born to the Felix family in Lisungwi, a rural setting in Neno District. They named her Salome. But not many people sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for her. Her agemates are completing secondary education, ready to go to university. However, the 17-year-old is still in a congested Standard Eight classroom, enduring taunting stares and slurs from her juniors.
Salome rues getting pregnant due to “child games” at age 13 and younger classmates taunt her for marrying young.
“It is never easy to be a school-going mother. Your attention is divided between the child and books. The insults from peers make life difficult. But such is life. To me, every day is a struggle to make up for the mistake I made when I was too young to fall in love,” narrates the girl who lives in Mwangisa Village, Traditional Authority Simon.
Four years ago, the birthday girl’s parents banished her from home to marry a teenager who had impregnated her. She was in Standard Seven at Lisungwi Primary School when she quit school to nurse the baby bulge and new marriage. So did her man, John Mgwagwa, then in Form Two at Phwadzi Secondary School.
“When they discovered that I was pregnant, my angry parents said I was old enough to marry. So, my partner and I married hastily. Life was very difficult. We had no job or skill. We struggled to find food. Despite being pregnant, I usually went to sleep hungry. John was doing piecework in the village and surrounding areas, but he often came home without money,” she recounts.
Persistent hunger and poverty made parents realise that the newlyweds were “too young to marry”—and they asked them to separate.
Salome returned to school last year while her baby remains in the care of her mother. She scoops top six positions in her class. Her teachers described her as a hard worker with a bright future.
But what really makes her happy?
“The birth of my daughter, Bertha-Stella, on August 23 2016,” she says. That day, I survived death while giving birth. God did not allow me to die of labour complications. When the baby was born, I realised that my parents were right: My body wasn’t ready for childbearing.”
Let children learn
In the country, adolescent pregnancies comprise 25 percent of all births and 20 percent of maternal deaths.
Salome wants to become a clinician so as “to motivate girls to remain in school” and help “ensure no woman dies giving birth”.
Interestingly, she talks to her peers, especially dropouts, about the importance of education and ills of child marriages.
“I am working hard to get selected to Chiwala Boarding Secondary School to avoid being distracted. While pursuing my dream, I also visit peers who dropped out due to teen pregnancies and marriages. At Nkhonde Primary School, I have helped two girls to re-enroll,” she says.
Last year, she was the only girl with a child at Lisungwe. Now, two other teen mothers have joined in—taking the second chance re-admission offers.
A study by World Vision Malawi shows about 600 children in Neno marry every year. However, both government and the United Nations Family Programme (UNFPA) report that half of women in the country marry before their 18th birthday, the legal minimum marriageable age.
World Vision country director Hazel Nyathi salutes parents, mother groups and child protection committees for taking the lead in keeping children in school.
“One of the best ways to build human capital is to educate every child. Educating a child is more important than assembling an army of 1 million,” she says.
World Vision has trained 340 people and formed 20 child protection groups in Madzemba area, where the Christian organisation has been working from February 1994 to September this year. It has also constructed 40 school blocks, sponsored 2 584 learners, trained 115 caregivers for early childcare centres to offer every child lifelong learning in line with Sustainable Development Goal four (SDG4).
“It takes Malawi to end child marriages. Everyone has a role to play,” says Nyathi. “When we arrived in Madzemba 34 years ago, poverty and child marriages were high. We have worked hand in hand with community members toward ending child marriages and sending girls back to school. We are leaving behind stronger community-based structures which will carry on what we have achieved together and do even much more. Literacy levels among girls are rising, but we also need to focus on educating the boy so that we leave no one behind.”
Concurring, Neno district commissioner Ali Phiri calls for greater community participation to end poverty, cultural practices and indifference which push girls into deeper poverty.
“The girls are too young and it is shocking to hear they were in marriage. They’re not ready for it. I’m happy that community members encouraged them to go back to school. Child marriage is not a solution to poverty. It only traps children and their children in the vicious cycle of poverty.
This is why Salome is happy that she and her husband are back in school.
She has a word for teens likely to “fall where we stumbled”: “Our mistake started like child games, but we quickly realised marriage is no child’s play. We are safer in school.” na