One out of every two girls in Malawi is married before age 18. The newly passed law proposing change in child age fixes 18 as the minimum age of marriage for girls and boys, addressing a major shortfall in Malawi’s efforts to protect girls against child marriage. But while the world celebrated with Malawi on the amendment, young girls in Chilipa in Mangochi are still crying for help because parents and traditional leaders are not paying attention to the new law. Many girls are still being married off at a tender age, some as young as 11. BOBBY KABANGO camped in Chilipa for four days and recounts what he found out in this first of a three part series of his investigations:
It is Monday, February 24; the clock on my arm shows it is around 11:30am. The weather is partly cloudy with light rains.
I am in Damiano Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chilipa in Mangochi where I am posing as a suitor, because I have reports that it is easy in this village to get myself a wife: a very young wife.
I arrived in Balaka, on February 23 2017 and travelled on a motorbike for about 90 kilometres before walking on foot for 20 kilometres to reach Liba Village in T/A Chilipa where I pitched camp for the night.
I have been welcomed by Matilda’s family. The family has a daughter to be married off, if only I could sweet-talk her mother.
The happy faces of the members of the family show that they are all excited, to see me. In this village, most men who come to marry here travel to South Africa for jobs. So, often, they come to this village looking for young girls to marry.
I explain to the family that I live in South Africa where I am working and involved in cross-border business. Hearing this, the mother is over the moon and she warmly welcomes me by further asking to know my mission. Smiling and avoiding eye contact, I tell her that I am looking for a wife.
Jokingly, she asks: “Who told you that I have a girl? My girl is very young. You cannot marry her now.” But she quickly turns to her neighbor as if giving her a signal to respond to my enquiry. I also quickly ask the neighbour if she has a girl ready for marriage.
The woman’s response is firm: “My daughter [Matiness] is still young and hasnot yet reached puberty. If she was grown up I would have loved you to be my son-in-law. She has small breasts but yet to start her periods, if you can bear with us for a year, she will be ready by then.”
However, the women gave me names of five girls aged below 18 within her area that I could approach for a hand in marriage. But to Matilda’s mother’s surprise, the neighbour informs her that all girls she had mentioned are married.
The girls, she claims, failed to reach Standard Seven.
Noting that I was disappointed to not have found a wife, Matiness’ mother changes tune and says if I was indeed serious to marry her 11-year-old daughter then I should visit the family later this year, when Matiness will be 12.
“Had my older sister’s daughter not married recently, I would have said marry her today. As for my daughter, she has not yet reached puberty as you can see. But come again at the end of year when she will have started her menses,” the mother says reassuringly.
She said, Matiness, born in 2006 is already out of school. She dropped out in Standard Five.
I leave Damiano Village scratching my head and in disbelief that some parents are so heartless as to marry off their daughters at such an early age. But it is ‘normal’ here in Chilipa for girls to enter marriage at such an early age and no one seems to care.
I arrive in Majawa Village, two kilometers away from Damiano Village. Another family welcomes me upon hearing that I am searching for a wife.
Here I am introduced to a 15 year-old-girl, who is heavily pregnant. She warmly greets me and calls her mother, before informing me that her husband was at the market at Chilipa Trading Centre.
After introducing myself as a businessperson who has just arrived from South Africa and that I am in the village to look for a girl to marry, the mother confirms that another daughter who is 16 might be interested to get married.
“Unfortunately, the girl is not around,” she says. “Mtsikanayodi kunoko alipo koma adachoka ndipo pano watha sabata asakuoneka [She left the village a few weeks ago and we do not know her whereabouts]. But you can come again to look at her when she returns to the village,” the mother says.
When I returned to Liba Village that evening, I met two girls who were coming from the farm. The older one must must have been 15 years or younger. After asking the 15-year-old if I could marry her, her response was that all I needed to do was seek her parent’s.
“Ndizosavuta find time to talk to my parents,” she said.
Dyson Kampiru from Liba Village says he is not shocked with girls as young 11 being offered for marriage.
“This has been a tendency in the community for many years,” he tells me. “I remember helping a friend who had called me to find a wife. I found an 18 year-old-girl for him. I called him and when he arrived we had an engagement the very same day, today they are a family in Ntcheu district,” explains Kampiru, 47.
But Mavuto Kamwiyo, who is the deputy headmaster for Matope Full Primary School is not amused.
“Something has to be done if girls in the community are to finish school,” he says.
Kamwiyo said the number of girls in Standard Five and Six are usually high, but the figure drops from Standard Seven to Eight when girls reach puberty.
He says it seems puberty is a crime for girls in Chilipa. Once a girl reaches puberty, she is married off. In some cases, the girls drop out of school to get married to men who travel to South Africa.
“In Standard Five we have 40 girls now, in Standard Six we have 35 girls, but in Standard Seven we have 21 girls while in Standard Eight we have only 19 girls.
As you can see, the numbers are going down in the upper classes. By the time the girls sit for Standard Eight examination many will have dropped out,” says Kamwiyo.
“If I remember well, since 2007, only three girls have reached Form Four with seven boys. Unless something is done early marriages willcontinue to affect girls a lot,” he adds.
When confronted by my findings of early marriages in his area, T/A Chilipa feigned ignorance of the problem.
“This is news to me, you mean a girl as young as 11 is being offered for marriage? This is still happening in my area? I am working day and night to deal with such cases,” he says.
The chief also says, he has set aside by-laws in his area to deal with perpetrators of child marriages.
At Chilipa Trading Centre, about 20-kilometers away from Liba Village I meet Chikulani Phiri. She droped out of school because she was married off but decided to leave marriage and return to school to finish her studies.
Chikulani is 20 years old and has a two-year-old baby girl. Today, she is in Form Two and commutes from her Mikisi Village to school.
She has no regrets leaving marriage.
“I was married when she I was 17-years-old. In our village, no girl has ever girl reaching Form One. So to me there was no role model to pursue education further. I dropped out and got married.
“Even today, we have a lot of young girls in our village who are married. Only four girls still go to school.
I was married once and I am no longer interested in marriage. Ndinaonako mavuto ndipo banja sindikulifunanso [I was suffering and I do not want to get married ever again],” she told me looking sad.
Chikulani is not the only girl to have dumped marriage. Another girl Annie Mkunga, who says she is 16 years old was also once married and has a one-year-baby girl, but today she is back in class and she is in Form One.
As I was leaving Chilipa, another girl, Eranivy who had heard that Weekend Nation reporter was in her village, came to hand me a message addressed to President Peter Mutharika.
Eranivy is a 19-years-old who looks older than her actual age. She has a two-year-old baby girl. She was once married to a 37-year-old man when she was 16.
She says she is a self-appointed human rights defender in her village and fights against early marriages because she does not want any girl to go through what she experienced in marriage.
“I want you to send this message to the President of Malawi. Early marriages are destroying girls future in my community. He must help us,” she said handing me her letter.
Here is her message:
“Wokondedwa a pulezidenti a Mutharika. Ine Eranivy Malefula ndinapitako kubanja [komwe ndakazuzidwa] ndiye pano ndanabwerera kusukulu ndiye kwa ine ndimafuna thandizo kuchokera kwa inu monga sukulu fizi komanso zipangizo zina zokhuza kusukulu, ndizakhala okondwa mukazandithandiza,” zikomo. Eranivy. n