Typical of remote parts of the country, the hills and valleys of Chapananga in Chikhwawa offer overwhelming encounters with teenage mothers with diminishing chances in life.
Most roads in the hard-to-reach terrain bordering Mozambique are pregnant with school dropouts unlikely to reclaim their rights when Parliament finally passes a Gender Equality Bill, outlawing sexual harassment and the sidelining of women in all spheres of life.
A resident of Nsomba Village in Chikhwawa, Samuel Chikoti’s wife, Mary, is just one of them—and the teenager has five children. When asked about what the future holds for her likes, Mary laughed coyly before summoning her husband, saying: “Culture forbids me to speak to strangers.”
Apart from surrendering to philosophies which hold women voiceless even on matters affecting them, the Standard Two dropout is a perfect portrait of an illiterate woman in a society craving gender equality. With her eyes alternating between the baby on her lap and a bellowing radio receiver, the mother of three looked more like the newborn’s sibling than its mother. At once, Mary’s spouse emerged from their hut with their firstborn.
According to Chikoti, 19, the two eloped after she got pregnant aged 13.
As she faces a bleak future due to lack of education, sexual reproductive health information and contraceptives, her urban age-mates are reclaiming their space in higher learning institutions, including the male-dominated State-funded universities.
The common sight confirms findings of the recent population and housing census: Many girls get pregnant before reaching 15 and are likely to have at least five children in their lifetime. However, traditional leaders liken early marriages, unplanned pregnancies and associated school dropout rates to an outbreak.
“Most parents think it is a waste of resources to educate their daughters. They educate boys while sending girls to marry. After all, the Sena culture entitles parents to cows or money once their daughter is married,” says Village Head Chang’ambika.
In the country, the Sena, Tumbuka, Ngoni and Ngonde cultures pay dowry as a token of appreciation to the bride’s parents and strengthening ties of the newlyweds’ parents. However, Chang’ambika’s statement affirms that it is sometimes hijacked by conduct of objectifying girls as lesser beings—commodities for sale.
To eliminate tendencies which hold one gender superior and another inferior, government seeks to table a Gender Equality Bill in Parliament this month. However, shedding harmful cultural practices, whether subtle or apparent, is just one of the setbacks to surmount for the proposed law to bear fruit.
Among other things, the legislation guarantees unrestrained access to sexual reproductive health even in remote areas, and requires both employing and learning institutions to recruit an equal number of men and women.
The bill makes failure to guarantee equal opportunities a punishable offence—setting aside a K1 million fine or six years imprisonment for those found guilty of recruiting more than 60 percent of one gender and less than 40 of the other.
Commentators say the law, coming 20 years after the restoration of democracy, is a belated bold step towards entrenching gender equality in a society that did not have a Prevention of Domestic Violence Act until Marieta Samuel of Dowa had both hands chopped by her husband Herbert Mankhwala in 2006.
However, the upcoming law calls for greater investment in women empowerment, especially the education of girls in rural areas.
“The bill could be late, but we commend government for taking a big leap towards mainstreaming gender. However, there is need for more initiatives to ensure girls go to school and proceed to higher learning,” says Women Legal Resource Centre (Wolrec) executive director Maggie Kathewera-Banda.
Various studies show an alarming number of girls quitting school in higher classes. Nowhere is the need for more girls in school more pronounced than in rural areas where traditional practices, religion and poverty send girls out of school in preference for early marriage, despite its damaging implications on their sexual reproductive health.
“Malawi cannot effectively develop if it continues to treat the fact that almost 60 percent of girls aged between 13 and 18 are married or in some form of union resembling marriage,” writes Women and Law in Southern Africa (Wilsa) executive director Seodi White in her column Women and Law.
One dare say there will never be enough deserving women in decision-making positions if the education sector remains a slippery ground for girls. The country can only strike the desired balance by squarely tackling the disparities rocking a society where pregnant girls are presumed ready for marriage.
And existing gender imbalances are pronounced in Parliament. Despite a heated campaign to ensure the equal representation and participation in decision-making jobs required by the Sadc Protocol on Gender, women constitute 21.76 in the 196-seat House.
In 2009, government adopted a readmission policy to give pregnant girls a second chance to pursue education.
Re-admitted students in Zomba say they are only happy to act as role models for girls in their situation and those likely to fall into premarital affairs, saying it can be hell because both teachers and fellow students tease them as only good for marriage.
Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom) works with women groups to strengthen the back-to-school girls. Its director Madalo Samati feels there is need for more commitment from government as a custodian of the policy to sensitise Malawians.
Said Samati: “Low re-enrolment and high levels of stigma show people are not aware of the existence of the policy. The Ministry of Gender must take deliberate steps to encourage the girls to go back to school. Also urgent is the need to scale up sexual reproductive health to ensure women choose when to have children.”
She reckons the gender equality legislation will be a losing battle if government does not open up channels that empower them to earn prominent positions.
Concurring with her, Swedish Organisation for Individual Relief regional director Lars Mannberq, says it is a catastrophe that almost 40 percent of women in some districts have never been in class—for how does the country hope to bridge gender gaps without adequately empowering women at the tail end of a patriarchal system?