At 14, Ketrina Tsegula from Makhanga in Nsanje District thought marriage would be fun.
“After all, some of my `peers had children and looked happy,” she says.
Despite access to free primary education with full parental support, the teenager dropped out to marry.
“I was having fun with my boyfriends, but fell pregnant while in Standard Six at Makhanga Primary School. My parents were furious. They sent me packing to live with my boyfriend, who was also dependent on his parents,” she explains.
Contrary to her expectation, Ketrina experienced endless hardship in marriage, including worsening hunger and poverty. This jolted the teen girl to start doing “a small business” to support her family and mother-in-law.
With time, Ketrina regretted quitting school, wishing she re-enrolled.
“I thought to myself that having a child cannot stop me from going back to school. After all, not all doors were closed,” she states.
As Ketrina was contemplating on going back to school, she was approached by female mentors who are creating safe spaces to help girls fight against sexual violence, teen pregnancies and child marriages.
The mentorship programme is being implemented by Rural Development Support Trust in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mlolo’s territory in Nsanje under the Spotlight Initiative under the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
After discussing her fears and aspirations with the mentors, Ketrina was freed from the illicit marriage and returned to school. She is now in Standard Seven at Makhanga.
Says Ketrina: “I am actually performing very well. During the end of first term examinations, I was on position nine and it encouraged me to work harder.”
The 16-year-old dreams to become a doctor or teacher, have a stable family, build a big house for her family and be a role model to other young girls.
The mentorship initiative involves 25 teen girls mentored by an older girl who acts as a role model.
Lumbiwe Zimba, the trust’s programmes officer, explains: “We encourage them that school is important and to demonstrate that, we bring in role models.
“For those who don’t understand, we talk to them privately. We tell them that if they go to secondary school, we will pay for their school fees. And we also buy books and school uniforms for them.”
The initiative, which began in 2016 and ends next year, has helped girls realise their sexual and reproductive health rights and that they can return to school after giving birth.
“In these safe spaces, they have manuals on human rights. When abuses happen at home or they see someone being abused, the girls report to us and we take it up through the right channels.
According to Zimba, the Spotlight initiative initiative has helped 55 girls has return to school.
“Some dropped out due to early marriages while others had different challenges,” he says.
On his part, the organisation’s director Aubrey Jeke, says while they have withdrawn young girls from early marriages, defilement in the area remains a big issue because there are no courts in T/A Mlolo, a hard-to-reach, flood-prone valley in Nsanje North.
“People travel all the way to Bangula and they spend a lot of money on transport. As a result, witnesses do not turn up at the court and as a result, some defilement cases are just withdrawn,” he says.
According to Jeke, in the past, the organisation used to handle about 10 cases in a day. However, with some sensitisation, there has been a drop in reported cases.