Last Wednesday, the world commemorated the International Day of the Girl Child.
This year’s theme—The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030—emphasises on ending child marriages. What a timely theme, especially for Malawi where early and forced marriages remain rampant.
According to UNFPA, almost half of all girls marry before the age of 18 in Malawi.
Human Rights Watch notes that between 2010 and 2013, 27 612 girls in primary schools and 4 053 in secondary schools dropped out due to marriage.
About 14 050 primary schoolgirls and 5 600 secondary schoolgirls dropped out due to teen pregnancies.
These grim statistics are mainly driven by poverty, lack of education opportunities, inaccessibility of sexual reproductive health services and cultural practices such as kupimbira, mbiligha, fisi, chinkhoswe cha usiku and kutomera.
In 2016, for instance, the world woke up to disturbing BBC news of Eric Aniva, the man who was paid to have sex with over 100 women and girls in Nsanje in fulfilment of fisi (hyena) culture to mark transition from girlhood to adulthood and to shake off bad luck.
It is reported that the girls are forced to have sex with the ‘hyena’ shortly after completing their first menstruation period to save their families and communities from misfortunes.
The hyena issue could be a tip of the iceberg that rolls back efforts to empower the girl child.
Despite numerous interventions championed by government and non-governmental organisations against such retrogressive, yet highly cherished cultural practices, most people, including chiefs, who tenaciously hold onto such practices, would denounce it in public and secretly practise it.
Rather than ending the practices, one would argue that the interventions by government and NGOs have only succeeded in pushing the practices deeper underground.
Girls’ education still remains at risk. Actually, denying the girl child her right to education poses a serious draw-back on the realisation of eight of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.)
Even more disconcerting is that some of the girls falling prey to teenage pregnancies and early marriages are getting bursary support from various partners with a stake in girl education.
A Mzimba Campaign for Female Education (Camfed) officer Henry Tembo bemoans the rising number of girls dropping out.
“We understand students should dropout from school because they do not have fees and educational materials. Therefore, we pay their school fees and provide necessary materials such as shoes, school uniform, writing materials and sanitary wear. But they still drop out from school due to early marriages and pregnancies,” he says.
Camfed is not the only organisation that has invested heavily in girl education, only to lose the target beneficiaries to early marriages and teenage pregnancies.
This calls for a shift from the needs-based to human rights based approach to girl child education initiative which will promote active participation and empowerment of the girls, parents, local leaders and the entire community.
Targeting girls with assorted incentives has proved costly, ineffective, and unsustainable. Even by-laws formulated to encourage girl education should not just be imposed on the community members.
They ought to result from an honest, participatory and meaningful discussion with the key participants, including girls themselves.
Furthermore, there is need for government to intensify implementation of education policies that encourage re-enrolment of teen mothers.
As recommended by Human Rights Watch, African governments should reverse harmful policies and practices that stigmatise girls, including forced pregnancy testing and regulations that allow for the expulsion of pregnant and married girls.
Of significant concern is the failure by Malawi’s education curriculum to provide comprehensive lessons on sexual and reproductive health rights to enable the girl child make informed decisions.
Time has come for stakeholders in the country to start using human rights based approaches in ending challenges that choke girl education. n