The conviction in his voice makes you realise that his condemnation of child marriages is just as strong as a Seventh Day faithful’s take on Sabbath worship.
Neither buts nor ifs; Just that plain. That straight. That simple, yet containing unwavering support for the safety and upbringing of vulnerable girls wherever they are found.
Chisomo Children’s Club executive director Charles Gwengwe minces no words: “This problem is not only confined to a specific culture but cuts across the width and breadth of Malawi. Money is the chief motivator as many parents and guardians force young girls into early marriages for financial gains.
“This is more of a social problem than a cultural one. Let us all be vigilant and condemn this malpractice in the strongest terms possible.”
It was no different in June at this year’s commemoration for the Day of the African Child at Ngabu Community Centre ground in Chikwawa whose theme, ‘Accelerating Our Collective Efforts to End Child Marriages’ remains relevant today and beyond. The precarious situation in which vulnerable girls find themselves in makes some gloomy reading.
The country has 1.8 million vulnerable children out of which 53 percent are girls. 52 out of every 100 girls marry before turning 18.
A girl who has the misfortune of being forced into an early marriage may suffer from obstetric fistula, (a hole between the vagina and rectum or bladder caused by prolonged obstructed labour which leaves the girl incontinent of urine or stool or both).
The girl is also at high risk of contracting HIV considering multiple sex partners. The majority of such girls are confined to misery where men turn them into nothing but baby-making machines thereby shortening their life span.
Senior Chief Ngabu of Chikwawa mulls over the problem of child marriages, which he says is rife in the district. He says drastic measures need to be taken to protect young girls from the jaws of forced early marriages.
The traditional leader concurs with Gwengwe. “We are still waging war against this bad cultural practice and the few people doing it are not doing so in the name of our culture but because they are greedy. They look at children as some means of making money by forcing them to get married in order to get some dowry. We will not relent until we eliminate this practice.”
He appeals to all parents and guardians to prioritise the education of their children and report all incidences of forced early marriages to relevant authorities.
The vulnerability of girls in the country is largely determined by high household poverty levels, living with one or no parent, low or no parent/guardian education, the effects of HIV and Aids and to some extent, issues to do with disability. Vulnerable girls face multiple forms of violence that push them into either early sexual intercourse or teenage pregnancy in their search for food with or without parents or guardians consent.
Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati is equally perturbed mince words either. She calls a spade its proper name and spews more undiluted truth in her usual no holds barred approach: “Abambo mukamati mufuna musase fumbi ndiye kuti chiyani? Mumawona ngati ifeyo fumbilo sitingalichotse tokha ku bafa?” (I pity men who still cling on to a bad cultural practice of ‘removing dirt’ on women. Do you think women cannot remove their dirt with soap?)
The minister calls on girls to work hard in school because it is only self-reliant women who can successfully contribute to the development of the nation.
“Nowadays, men are interested in educated women. In any case, a woman has a better chance of bargaining when she is educated and men know they cannot mess with such women.” Says Kaliati who also launched the 2015—2019 National Plan of Action (NPA) for vulnerable children during the commemoration.
The NPA outlines three programme and intervention areas that vulnerable children would benefit from in the areas of prevention, response and coordination.
The minister says government is working tirelessly to reach out to all vulnerable children in the country and cites the enactment of child-friendly legislation like Child Care, Protection and Justice Act as proof of government’s commitment.
“Government has also recruited 300 child protection workers throughout the country to step up child protection interventions and also increase the heat against child abuse,” adds Kaliati.
Paramount Chief Lundu commends government for spearheading the fight against early marriages. He, however, says more needs to be done to ensure that all vulnerable children in the country have a safe and secure environment.
Lundu toys with the idea of lobbying government to consider raising the age of the child.
“I think raising the age of a child from 18 years to 21 could help in ensuring that vulnerable children have a protective shield and are given more years to develop and be educated as well,” says Lundu.
According to him, empowering vulnerable children through education prepares them for sound leadership roles. He calls upon government to construct more schools in Chikwawa because long distances contribute to more girls dropping out of school.
“How do you expect a girl to finish school when she has to cover over 15 kilometres from home to school?” wonders the traditional leader.
Unicef Malawi country representative Mahimbo Mdoe reaffirms Unicef’s commitment to improving the lives of vulnerable children in Malawi as stipulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the country’s Constitution. He decries the prevailing situation in Chikwawa and other districts where teenage pregnancies and forced early marriages are jeopardising future prospects for vulnerable children.
Principal Secretary for Gender Dr. Mary Shawa appeals to all stakeholders to accelerate efforts in curbing child abuse more especially on girls who are more vulnerable than boys. She also bemoans the tendency of children’s video show patronage which she says negatively affects their lives.
“It is the responsibility of all duty bearers, especially parents, to make sure that their children are not patronising video show rooms,” Stresses Shawa.
Youth Net and Counselling (Yoneco) Executive Director McBain Mkandawire, who is also chair for End Child Marriages campaign appeals to government to provide firm guidance in the intensification of curbing child marriages across the country. “The national policy can only be mere paper if stringent measures are not taken to ensure that as a country we remain committed to eliminating child marriages,” points out Mkandawire.
It is in this vein that the 2010 Child Care Protection and Justice Act (CCPJA) needs to be given the teeth to bite. CCPJA’s section 83 states: A person who forces a child into marriage or force a child to be betrothed commits an offence and shall be liable to 10 years imprisonment. CCPJA is one of the surest tools to successfully fight the behaviour of all negligent and uncaring parents or guardians.