It is Wednesday afternoon and it is scorching hot at Lulanga Health Centre in Sub-Traditional Authority (STA) Lulanga in Mangochi.
Adija Mdala, 17, is profusely sweating as she gets out of the maternity ward. She has just been discharged from the facility after giving birth to her first child, Maria.
At 16, Adija, a Standard Seven dropout at Chongwe Primary School, was trapped in a teen sexual relationship that left her pregnant before pushing her into an early marriage. Her boyfriend, now husband, was 20 when they married last year.
“My husband was in Form Two when I got pregnant. Upon discovering I was pregnant, my parents took me to his place and quickly facilitated our marriage,” she recalls.
Surprisingly, Adija appears to be contented. She insists she wishes to continue staying with her husband to raise the family together. She strongly rules out succumbing to any suggestions to send her back to school.
“I am now independent and run my own home. My husband is a fisherman and I have nothing to complain about,” she boasts.
Victoria Sichinga, a nurse/midwife technician at the health centre laments increasing number of teen pregnancies in the area. She says out of 100 deliveries recorded per month, 60 involve teen mothers.
“Most of the pregnant mothers here are aged between 13 and 18,” she explains. “Because of their immature bodies, most of them struggle to deliver normally.”
Sichinga says they refer most cases to either Makanjira Health Centre or Mangochi District Hospital.
“Culture and peer pressure are the major reasons for high teen marriages in the district. The society does not value education, many young men drop out of school and move to the lake for fishing business while some migrate to South Africa in search of greener pastures.
“They come back with money and various materials which they use to lure young girls into sexual relationships,” she explains.
Adija says she knows six of her classmates who also dropped out of school in April this year due to pregnancy and are now mothers.
The teen mother says she used to envy her friends who were in love or had babies, hence she fell for her now husband.
Mangochi district deputy family planning coordinator Margaret Nyalugwe expressed worry that despite her office promoting use of family planning methods among the youths in the district, teenage pregnancies continue to rise.
According to the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, the country has registered an increase in teenage pregnancies from 26 percent in 2010 to 29 percent. Mangochi has the highest teen pregnancies at 37 percent.
“We are not doing well as a district because 37 percent is way too high and this is worrisome. The trend is fuelling complications during child birth and puts pressure on the already strained public resources,” says Nyalugwe.
It is against this background that organisations such as Amref Health Africa and others are engaging youths as change agents in the district. Through a project called Stand up for Adolescents, the organisation is on a campaign to reach teen girls with messages that can protect them from early pregnancies. It is currently operating in Mangochi and Phalombe districts.
“We acknowledge the power of peer pressure and through Stand up for Adolescents, we have trained about 80 youths in Mangochi who are championing the fight against teenage pregnancies and child marriages, motivating their peers, encouraging them to continue with education and use contraceptives,” says Amref Health Africa projects officer for Mangochi, Charlene Chisema.
She hopes the four-year project running from 2017 to 2021 will help to turn the tables.
Girls Empowerment Network (Genet) monitoring and evaluation officer for a project called Enabling Girls to Advance Gender Equity (Engage), Thelma Kaliu, describes the idea as viable, saying involving girls as peer educators has the potential to influence more girls quickly.
She testifies that the same approach has worked perfectly in Phalombe and Thyolo districts where Genet is implementing similar programmes.
“We are using girl-centred approach and it is working perfectly,” says Kalua.
She says the project is targeting girls aged between 15 and 17 and so far have reached 400 girls serving as girl leaders in Thyolo and Phalombe districts since 2017. The girl leaders run girl clubs in their respective communities. In the groups, the girls discuss issues around culture, early pregnancies and teen marriages.
“The good news is that all the 400 girl leaders are still in school two years later. Many of them could be out of school by now,” explains Kaliu.
“The girl leaders first discuss with the girl who wants to go into an early marriage and in cases where it is parents forcing a girl into marriage, they report the parents to local leaders or police.”
One of the girl leaders in Phalombe, 16 year-old Felia Namacha of Chinolapheni Community Day Secondary School, said many girls lack vision and proper guidance and succumb to peer pressure and start behaving wildly.
She quashes out poverty as an excuse for failure to continue with education.
“My parents are poor; I used to do piece works to support my education. I persisted until Genet adopted me to meet my school expenses. I am now helping fellow girls to stay in school,” says Felia. n