On a Friday morning, a group of teen mothers led by officials from Adventist Development and Relief Agency (Adra) Malawi set for Dziwe la Nkhalamba on Mulanje Mountain.
As the girls—aged between 12 and 20—climbed the mountain, their faces gleaming and jokes lacing their stories, there were no signs of pain on their faces. The purpose of the journey was to demonstrate the pains of being a teen mother.
In the group is a 14-year-old we will identify as Mary from Tsabola Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Juma in Mulanje. She has been married for two years, but says she regrets every moment of the union.
She fell pregnant at 12 and was eventually married off to a then 25-year-old man.
“It was peer pressure,” she starts her story. “I had friends who had boyfriends outside our school. They hardly associated with those of us without boyfriends. Even when they bought foodstuffs, they would not share with us. I started to feel low and fell for my [eventual] husband.”
Mary knows she made a wrong decision considering her age, but what she regrets most is the unprotected sex she engaged herself in.
“I did not understand what a love relationship entails. I felt guilty to deny him sex when he was supporting me,” she says.
The pregnancy came after her Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PLSCE) examinations. She is proud to be a mother, but confesses that being a teen mother is hell.
Raised by a single mother, then having a child at a tender age worsened poverty at the home. She says they rarely have three meals a day, yet “to breast feed, you need a good diet.”
Her mother corroborates: “It is hard for a child to take care of a fellow child. Raising a child requires maturity.
“You cannot expect a better future for the newborn. Even during delivery, it is a case of life and death. The birth process also traumatised her.”
Mary’s mother adds that her daughter used to be healthy, but all has changed after delivery.
She considers Mary lucky because she did not have a Caesarian like most of her agemates. But she suffered fistula in the process.
The condition was repaired last year. However, doctors advised her not to fall pregnant again within six years.
Despite her condition, Mary sought employment in estates to support herself and her baby, but was turned down because of her age. However, this only forced her into piece works since she was determined to support her child.
Adra Malawi found her doing the piece works.
Her case is not unique. Thousands of girls are in early marriages today. But, unlike Mary’s case, most of them are pushed by parents.
A report by Adra Malawi predicts a high rate of such marriages—a trend that cuts across Malawi where a number of factors lead to the situation.
Recently, Annie Mandala, Balaka District Hospital Youth Friendly Services coordinator, shocked a gathering at Qadria Muslim Association of Malawi (Qmam) open day on Sexuality, Sexual Reproductive Health and Gender-Based Violence when she revealed that every month, 5 000 girls fall pregnant in the district.
Although there are laws prohibiting early marriages in the country, what is happening scares you to the bone. Statistics show that about 52 percent of girls marry before reaching the age of 18.
The African Union (AU) Campaign report released in December 2015 reveals that nearly 65 percent of women without formal education in Malawi are child brides. The 2014 Human Rights Watch report on Child Marriages in Malawi says between 2010 and 2013, over 27 612 girls in primary and 4 053 in secondary schools dropped out for marriages. Yet, while in such marriages, the girls are but baby-making machines.
Henry Mafuleka, a retired nurse/midwifery technician says it is dangerous for an immature body to carry a pregnancy because it can lead to deformity. He adds that teen pregnancies risk the life of the mother because her bones and muscles are immature.
Mary is lucky to be back in school, thanks to Adra Malawi. Through its When a Child is a Mother (WCM) project in T/A Juma, the organisation has rescued over 50 teen mothers in the district.
Thoko Mwapasa, the project’s manager, describes the initiative as a success and says plans are underway to extend it to other districts affected by the problem.
“Climbing the mountain is just a formula of trying to make our messages stick in their minds. Those who cannot be in school should find other means of redefining their future,” she says.
Adra Malawi is not alone in this fight as other organisations, including government, are doing the same. However, the efforts are yielding minimal results as most efforts have no formula for keeping the teen mothers in school.
Mwapasa admits: “There are several issues coming out and these include lack of school fees and long distances to schools. We do not have scholarships, but we are planning to engage other stakeholders.”
Judith Kumwenda, WCM project coordinator, admits that lack of scholarships is a missing link, but says since they started engaging local authorities. From then, people are able to understand the ambition and support their girls’ stay in school.
She gives an example of Mary, whose school is supported by her husband.
Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), another organisation saving the future of girls yet to lose any of its beneficiaries to marriages.
The association’s executive director Nettie Dzabala attributes this to the special package that empowers the girls economically. She says they give small loans.
Despite government promoting the re-admission policy for girls who fall pregnant, a girl on scholarship who drops out of school due to pregnancy loses the scholarship right away.
“Once one falls pregnant, the scholarship is given to another needy individual and there is no guarantee that she will get another,” reveals Mulanje district education manager (DEM) Gossam Mafuta.
Maureen Mankhwala, a Lilongwe-based gender activist, argues that rescuing girls without empowering them is like going one step forward and two backwards.