Kupimbira, a cultural practice that has seen girls aged between three and 16 sold off to men in exchange for cattle or as repayment of debts, is declining in Karonga North. How has this come to be? JOHN CHIRWA finds out.
At 14, Patricia Nyirenda [not her real name] from Yezgani Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kyungu in Karonga had already married a man twice her age.
Her father, Gift Nyirenda, married her off to benefit from dowry.
Such is the cultural practice called kupimbira, where small girls are forced into arranged marriages.
And such has been business as usual for most girl-children in the lake shore district.
But mother luck was on Patricia’s side as the new couple never had to wait for death to do them apart. A Father and Mother group at Kamanga Primary School intervened to separate them.
“After receiving a tip-off of the arranged marriage, we immediately convened a meeting to rescue the girl,” explains Edward Sichinga, a member of the group, which oversees the welfare of learners at the school.
“But when the husband learnt of our intentions to stop the marriage, he ran away with her to Chitipa where they stayed for two weeks. We then reported the matter to the village head to intervene,” says Sichinga.
Upon being approached, group village head Simfukwe referred the matter to police.
“I approached the police to help us apprehend the person. They found him at Wovwe [in Karonga] where he had relocated from Chitipa—and we rescued the girl,” says Simfukwe.
Patricia’s case is one of the eight the group handled last year.
“Our duty as a group is to sensitise the communities to the importance of education and follow up on learners who drop out of school,” he explains.
The Livingstonia Synod Aids Programme (Lisap) formed such groups to combat the kupimbira tradition. Currently, there are 64 such groups fighting against the vice which is widespread in the areas of Ighembe, Iponga, Nkhando and Mwenitete.
Lisap director Mphatso Ngulube says the idea behind Father and Mother groups was to involve both men and women in fighting for the welfare of children.
“When we started working in these areas in 2009, we realised that kupimbira was their way of life. We knew then that it would not be easy to scrap off the practice without their involvement,” explains Ngulube, whose organisation is implementing a Boys and Girls Empowering Project in Karonga North with funding from the Scottish Government and Tearfund.
“What we did was to start educating them on the importance of education and how they would protect themselves and their children from HIV and Aids.
“After trainings, they suggested to us to address the issue of kupimbira, as it fuels the spread of HIV and deprives children from accessing education. We, therefore, formed Father and Mother groups in each school to protect girls from early marriages and any form of abuse.
“This is a different approach from mother groups which most schools have. The reason is simple. Women in Karonga do not have a voice, so we decided to involve men to have an authority in promoting children’s rights,” she says.
Ngulube says the project has seen an influx of girls returning to school, and kupimbira cases have reduced drastically.
“Since we started, we have rescued 382 learners from early or forced marriages. Among those rescued from marriages was an eight-year-old girl who, after being withdrawn from marriage in 2010, was sent back to school and is now in Standard Seven at Bandawe Girls Primary School,” she says.
Simfukwe says cases of kupimbira have now decreased in his area.
“The awareness campaigns by Lisap have helped a lot because people are now able to understand disadvantages of kupimbira. We rarely receive such cases now,” he says.
Karonga Police Station spokesperson Enoch Livason echoed Ngulube’s sentiments by saying Lisap’s projects are bearing fruits in the district.
“Presently, a month goes by without receiving a kupimbira case. As police, we also have community policing structures which discourage communities against kupimbira,” says Livason.
Government picked success stories championed by Lisap as best practices from Malawi that were presented at the recent International Conference on the Status of Women in the United States of America.
“What the project has achieved shows there is a lot we can learn from Lisap. We have used it as a success story for Malawi at the Convention of the Status of Women in New York,” said Dr Mary Shawa, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare. n