Better late than never
Enifa finally goes back to school
Seventeen year old Enifa vividly remembers Monday, 8 January 2020, when she walked back to Mlale Primary School, south of Lilongwe City, for the first time after spending two years in marriage.
Enifa who dropped out at the age of 14 to give birth, recalls: “I couldn’t wait to get back to class and revive my dream to become a doctor, but I didn’t know how my peers would welcome me. The last time they saw me, I was a little girl but pregnant.”
The teenager delivered a baby girl in September 2017, months after marrying her 19-year-old suitor—four years short of Malawi’s marriageable age of 18. “We agreed to marry, but I didn’t tell my parents. On 8 June 2017, I escaped empty-handed in the night, walking on my toes like a cat because I wanted to be free. However, it was a big mistake,” she says.
Enifa left the marriage after a distressing two years of worsening poverty. The couple lacked basics such as food and soap, she says.
“Besides, I had no say on family affairs. My ex-husband used to beat me and kicked me out of the house for asking about things that would affect me,” she recalls. Together, the two used to wake up early to work for low pay in neighbouring crop fields while their peers walked to school.
Enifa has since returned to school following advice from members of a mothers’ group and headteacher Rose Gwande. The mother group- women from the community who encourage girls to stay in school- visited the couple’s home in Khomani Village in the outskirts of the capital city of Malawi.
She states: “I feel lucky that the headteacher visited me twice and said the same thing the mother group said to me and my ex-husband, that I was too young to marry. My ex-husband only let me go when they threatened to report the matter to police.”
Enifa found herself out of school again in March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic disrupted learning for six months. “It was a huge disturbance just when I had settled down and started catching up,” she explains.
Teen pregnancies and child marriages spiked during the long wait for the reopening of schools. The Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare estimates that almost 13,000 pregnancies and 40,000 marriages occurred within six months. The lengthy shutdown left Enifa under pressure to remarry.
“I wish schools remained open with strict coronavirus preventive measures. After wasting two years, I couldn’t bear another delay. Some people started pestering me to reunite with my ex-husband, saying I was wasting my best years in school,” she explains.
Enifa now knows marriage can wait. “I will marry when I am old enough. Currently, my ex-husband and I don’t talk anymore. He doesn’t support the child. I am safer in school.”
Her mother, Anesi Kadango, takes care of the baby when the Enifa is at school, where she warns her peers against child marriages and teen pregnancies.
“I am happy to be back to school. Both teachers and learners welcomed me joyfully. I share my experience because education is almost everything for poor girls,” Enifa says.
Her mother is happy. She hopes Enifa has learnt her lesson.
“When I asked her if she was pregnant, my daughter refused and disappeared while I was fast asleep. I was disappointed. Now I’m pleased that she is back in school,” she recounts. She regrets not promptly withdrawing Enifa from marriage.
“I didn’t know that teen mothers have a right to return to school. I thought it was okay because if she was pregnant, she was old enough to marry. But it’s better late than never,” she narrates. The mother-of-four wants her first-born to excel in school to uplift herself and liberate her family from poverty.
There are three teen mothers at her school, personifying rampant teen pregnancies and child marriages in their locality. “Many parents do not value girls’ education, so there is a need to sensitise them and the community leaders to keep girls in school and bring teen mothers back,” the Headteacher Gwande explains.
Gwande reckons Enifa’s future looks bright. “Falling pregnant or marrying young is not the end of life. Girls like her can achieve what they want if they remain in school and work harder,” she says.
The readmission policy supports the global Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty and inequalities by ensuring quality life-long learning for every child.
However, dropout rates in Malawi remain high. Nearly half of all girls in Malawi are already married by the age of 18 while a third of those aged 15-19 have begun childbearing, accounting for a quarter of all pregnancies (Malawi Demographic Health Survey 2016). A third of all new HIV infections in 2018 were among young people aged 15-24.
Limited sexuality education, prevailing myths and misconceptions associated with contraceptive use derail efforts to address adolescent fertility in a country where adolescent fertility is high.
With support from the Swedish Government, UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO, UNAIDS and the Government of Malawi are delivering an integrated package of sexual and reproductive health services, HIV sensitive interventions and sexual and gender-based violence prevention. This joint programme is being implemented in areas where teenage pregnancy, HIV, sexual and gender-based violence are high to help young people like Enifa make informed decisions about relationships and sexuality as well as provide care and treatment to adolescents living with HIV.
UNICEF is also supporting the government to train social welfare officers and community child protectors to swiftly handle cases of child abuse, rights violations and exploitation.
Bridget Mwale, assistant social welfare officer in Lilongwe, says the push to keep girls in school will flop unless parents take full responsibility as primary caregivers.
“The high rates of early pregnancy and marriage, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, show the need to sensitise parents and community leaders to take child protection seriously and make laws work. Following the case management training, cases once concealed are being detected and handled faster than before,” she says.