Ruth Banda, 17, from Manja Township in Blantrye was only 15 years old when she got married in 2019.
She did not want to get married, but circumstances pushed her into the marriage.
Ruth explains: “I grew up with a single mother and it was difficult for her to provide for me and my brother. We could go for days surviving on one cup of tea or a bowl of porridge a day.
“It was tough for my mother and I could see it. So, I met a certain young man who asked me to marry him. He was 21 at the time. I thought he could turn my life around. My mother didn’t protest either.”
The Standard 8 dropout explains that her ex-husband, who at the time was working as a mechanic at a garage in Chilobwe, supported her mother. Life was gradually improving for the Banda family.
But the family’s good fortunes changed when the man started abusing her.
“He started coming late and whenever I asked where he was, he would beat me up. Our neighbours would try to intervene, but the beatings did not stop,” she says.
When the abuse got worse, Ruth went back to her mother and told her that she wanted to divorce her husband. The family supported her decision and allowed her back into her mother’s household.
“My mother got a job as a maid, so she can support the family. At times, I also do piecework in some houses in Manja. Hopefully, I will go back to school next year,” she explains.
Ruth says she agreed with her mother to enrol at Manja Primary School. She says life is slowly improving for her family and is hopeful she will achieve her dream of becoming a medical doctor.
Incidentally, her ex-husband tried to rekindle the marriage, but Ruth rebuffed him. He eventually cut off all contact with her after he left for Mozambique in search of greener pastures.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, between January and July 2021, 3 773 girls and boys were rescued from child marriages.
Out of the figure, 3 202 were girls and 570 were boys. However, the statistics show that 1 518 children—1 234 girls and 284 boys—went back to school.
Last month, Minister of Gender, Community and Social Welfare Patrica Kaliati led a campaign to withdraw under-age girls from child marraiges and brothels across the country.
Lilongwe-based child rights advocate Bridget Shumba says stakeholders should appreciate the root causes of child marriages to address the malpractice.
She points out four factors that drive child marriages, including poverty, cultural factors, religious beliefs and peer pressure.
Says Shumba: “Addressing these factors spurn a whole trajectory of change, meaning the interventions are short, medium and long-term and these have to be structured with deliberate efforts made at each stage of change.
“Poverty remains an enormous challenge in Malawi. Currently, 57 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Such unprecedented levels of poverty present hard conditions to fight child marriages. Girls cannot go to school nor remain in school due to lack of resources.”
She says ending child marriages requires a layered approach that addresses the challenges girls face at biological, behavioural and structural levels.
During a panel discussion on ending child marriages last month, Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare deputy director of child affairs Justin Hamela stressed that families need to be economically empowered to successfully participate in the fight against child marriages.
However, he said the lack of sensitisation programmes on the impacts of child marriages at community level is one of the contributing factors to child marriages.
Malawi is ranked number 12 out of 195 countries in the world with the highest number of child marriages. According to the Ministry of Gender, Development and Community Welfare, 42 percent of women in the country are married before the age of 18, while 12 percent are married before the age of 15