She was only 14 when she gave birth to her first child. Now she is 21 and a mother of two.
In an interview at her Chitapa Moyo Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chindi in Mzimba, Ruth (not real name) says her dream was to marry a man of her choice, probably “someone from her school”.
This dream, however, was thwarted in 2014 when she was enticed to marry a man she had never met before.
Ruth received a message that a Malawian man working in South Africa was looking for a woman to marry. He had asked his sister to help him find a potential wife. The message reached Ruth’s family, and they forced her to seize the opportunity and escape poverty.
She explains, her eyes shyly fixed on the ground: “I was reluctant to go. I wanted to continue with my education. But later, I agreed and the man sent money for me to leave for South Africa.”
At that time, Ruth was in Standard 6.
“They showed me some pictures. He looked young enough, but I was surprised upon arrival in South Africa to find he was an old man. But it was too late, there was nothing I could do but marry him,” she says.
Ruth, who has never had a passport, said she used shortcuts to travel to South Africa, adding that about K250 000 was spent to make the trip.
“I only spent three months in South Africa. As soon as I got pregnant, I was told to return to Malawi. I gave birth to a baby boy in July 2016,” she says.
A year after giving birth, the man sent a message to his family, asking Ruth to return to South Africa.
“I left my baby with my mother-in-law in 2017 to return to South Africa. This time, I stayed for two and a half years. But the moment I got pregnant, I was sent back to my village. That was in 2019. I gave birth to a baby girl in 2020 right here in Mzimba.”
Ruth has vowed never to go back to South Africa. She laments that her husband does not support her and the children.
She says: “There is nothing I get from my husband. Since I married him, he has never sent me money. Not even for the children’s groceries.”
Ruth says she does not know her husband’s phone number.
“I get all my support from my mother-in-law who is keeping me and my children and providing for us,” she says.
Ruth’s case is common in the district where many men abandon their wives in search of greener pastures in South Africa.
Thandiwe Moyo from Kazezani Makamo Village, T/A M’mbelwa is another victim. Her husband left for South Africa in 2004 and for 17 years now, she has been raising her two sons alone.
“I have never received any support since he left. He does not call, not even sending a letter to people coming home,” she says.
She is illiterate and not sure of her own age.
“I think I am about 60 years old,” she said while speaking to The Nation at her house built by her father. “My father is the one providing for me,” she adds.
For some time, she was dependent on her first born son born in 1993. But he also left for South Africa, leaving his mother to take care of his younger brother and four grandchildren.
Asked if her husband is still alive, Moyo says: “Yes he is alive. My son called to tell me that he met his father, but they are not living together. We don’t know if he will come back.”
Moyo, a subsistence farmer, says this year she has harvested 15 bags of maize.
“This is a relief. I will sell some bags to buy groceries and take care of some household needs,” she says.
The high rate of unemployment in Malawi is affecting marriages in Mzimba and other districts in the country as many husbands and young men are leaving their wives and children without support.
A 2014 United Nation’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) report titled Migration in Malawi estimates that 90 percent of migrants from Malawi went to other countries of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), with about 70 percent heading to South Africa.
Because most of these men do not support their families back home, some women resort to divorce. Statistics from Mzimba Magistrate’s Court show that the court has registered 186 divorce cases from 2019 to 2021.
Group village head Kazezani says labour migration to South Africa is rampant in his area.
“This started years back and it is women who are disadvantaged. The problem is that many husbands do not support their wives back home but we are telling them to go to court to seek for divorce if they do not support,” he says.
Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre (MHRC) executive director Emma Kaliya says the only way out for these women is to go to court and claim that they have been deserted.
She says: “Legally, these women have proper grounds for divorce and they can claim for compensation from the husbands. For this to be achieved, it requires willingness of the victimised women to push for their cases. Civil society organisations and government should intervene on this case.
“This is a gender-based violence issue. It constitutes sexual violence and psychological violence that women endure.”
In a separate interview, University of Malawi sociologist Charles Chilimampunga said the affected women need counselling and that the nation should not isolate them.
“This is a case of men treating women as sexual objects. They do not have respect for women, which is bad and we need to find ways to deal with such,” he said.