Fighting early marriages with education

Ending child marriages in Malawi

By Shorai Nyambalo
UNICEF Malawi/2019/Shora Nyambalo
11 October 2020

When her father suddenly died in 2007, Esmie Mwenyekaka lost hope for a better future and could not come to terms with the crushing death of her father.

All of a sudden, life turned upside down. Esmie had to leave the comfort of town and embrace village life at M’balula, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chowe in Mangochi.

The grim reality of poverty soon caught up with her upon arrival at her village, and life started to become a nightmare.

To add salt to the festering wound, the village community pressurized her to marry early as a solution to her poverty. The community then organized suitors for her, promising to take her to South Africa. Just like some districts in Malawi, in Mangochi, when a girl is married to a man living in South Africa (mostly illegal immigrants) or has just returned from South Africa, it is regarded as a bailout from poverty and big achievement to both the girl and her parents.

“There were a lot of men who came looking for girls to marry. These people promised us that we would go to South Africa once we marry them, and I said no to that,” says Esmie.

What was more shocking to Esmie was the fact that even her close friends encouraged her to marry early so that she could end her misery.

“When things reached unbearable levels, I ran away from my father’s village and decided to go to my mother’s home where problems persisted and sought refuge at my aunt’s home,” narrates Esmie.

“I enrolled at Nasenga Community Day Secondary School where I got pregnant when I was 19. I didn’t write exams that year because I dropped out,” she said, fighting back emotions.

Mangochi, just like most parts of Malawi, is one of the districts with the highest proportion of teenagers who have started childbearing which is at 48 per cent and in addition to that, the problem of early forced marriages is significant. The Constitution of the Republic of Malawi prohibits girls from marrying before the age of 18. However, forced child marriages remain rampant in Malawi as most girls are getting married as early as 12-15 years, although some chiefs and development organizations have mounted vigorous campaigns against early marriages.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 5, calls for the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls by 2030. To achieve this, countries like Malawi need to empower girls like Esmie, hear their voices and work on ensuring their rights to a better future.

According to the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage, this promotes the rights of adolescent girls to avert marriage and pregnancy, and enables them to achieve their aspirations through education and alternative pathways.

“Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to remain in school. They have worse economic and health outcomes than their unmarried peers, which are eventually passed down to their own children, further straining a country’s capacity to provide quality health and education services,” UNICEF notes.

Esmie was aware about these consequences if she rushed into marriage. Realizing that early marriage would consign her to life-long poverty, she went back to school after delivery of her child, to the surprise of many in her village.

“When people heard I had gone back to school, they started pestering my aunt to get me married. They even took my clothes from my hostel room so that I go back to my village to marry. But I didn’t want this to happen to me,” she says.

As fate would have it, she began fighting two battles of early marriage and school fees as well as other necessities, hoping that life would be better in future after attaining some education.

As she was brooding over school fees, her dad’s pension funds came out, and she got her share of MWK 7, 500. Esmie used this money wisely to pay for her school fees. However, it was not enough and had to drop mid-way of the school term. As a result, Esmie did some extra work during school holidays at Mangochi Boma where she was earning MWK 5,200 per month.

“I opened a bank account and accumulated up to MWK 35,000. When I went back to school, the teachers received me well because they liked me due to my good behaviour. I also received a lot of support from people in the community like Traditional Authority (T/A) Chowe and his wife,” explains Esmie.

Things turned for the better when she was  put  on a bursary scheme that also  refunded all the money she used in paying school fees throughout.

“This was the turning point in my life. From that moment, everything flowed well, life became easier, and I knew better things were coming,” explains Esmie, flashing a smile.

Being one of the beneficiaries of the bursary,  during school holidays,  she was assigned the role of encouraging other girls against dropping out of school.

Although the school had inadequate infrastructure to support girl education, she worked hard and eventually passed her MSCE examination in 2014 with 26 points, enabling her to enrol into a Community Development Course at Soche Technical College in Blantyre.

In February 2016, Esmie  went to RSA to train in a Leadership Course to strengthen her skill set in looking after girls who have gone through early pregnancy.

Despite the timely support from different organisations, the community continued to support her, with T/A Chowe facilitating her nomination into a midwifery course under the Safe Motherhood Programme - an initiative the Government of Malawi introduced in 2012 to enlist community-based school leavers as one of improving staffing levels in rural community health centres. 

 “I made a decision not to rush into marriage, and with patience, I found a husband who is a graduate of University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, and we now have one child, Firaaz Maida, aged 11 months now,” says Esmie.

Esmie’s story comes against a background of global campaigns aimed at protecting women and girls in various strata of society. For example, at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, countries unanimously adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing the rights of not only women but girls.

Twenty-six years later, the Platform for Action remains a powerful foundation for assessing progress on gender equality. It calls for a world where every girl and woman can realize all her rights, such as to live free from violence, to attend and complete school, to choose when and whom she marries, and to earn equal pay for equal work.

T/A Chowe described Esmie as a young lady with a lion heart, adding that despite pressure from the community and family to marry after an early pregnancy, she remained steadfast in her determination to further her education.

He said, “These are the girls we need to advocate for education and against child marriage. She is a role model in our community, and we use her often to educate other girls on the importance of remaining in school.”

The chief says community involvement in girl education, collaboration between local leaders and religious bodies, community sensitization meetings and support from local NGOs have helped to take the campaign for girl education to success, leading to girls like Esmie to go back to school and lead independent and productive lives.

As a word of caution to girls who may want to drop out of school, Esmie had this to say: “Be patient because it pays in future to be in school. Problems are part of life and we should not cite poverty as a deterrent to education because unlike in the past, now we have a lot of development organizations that are into girl education and are ready to support you. This is an opportunity for you to go to school and work hard so that your future becomes brighter.”

UNICEF believes that promoting girl education is key to fighting poverty, reducing stunting and empowering girls to have control over their lives thereby ensuring their right to survival, protection, participation and development.

UNICEF Malawi’s Gender Specialist Ms Christobel Chakwana says “At the heart of this special day lies a vision and goal to enable our girls, who have been denied space to voice out their views, to become the game changer. Equipping girls with education can shape the future of tomorrow’s Malawian women for better. Everyone must ensure that girls are given space to be heard and contribute to the development agenda at all levels.”

As the world comes together on the International Day of the Girl Child (11 October) to celebrate over 25 years of progress under the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, UNICEF is launching a campaign with girls to amplify their voices and stand up for their rights. This year, under the theme, “My voice, our equal future”, gives us the opportunity to reimagine a better world inspired by girls.