Schoolgirl Shakes Off COVID-19 Regret
Lucy's return to school
On 23 March 2020 came news about the sudden closure of schools across Malawi to push back the coronavirus pandemic. The standstill left children idling at home for six months, not sure when they would safely return to class. Sixteen-year-old Lucy fell pregnant for a second time.
The first came at the age of 14 in 2018 when she had to drop out of school for a year to give birth. The pregnancy dimmed her dream to become a nurse.
“I was gutted. The first pregnancy left me a year behind my agemates. Then coronavirus disrupted everything all over again,” Lucy explains.
“My 19-year-old neighbour and I agreed to marry because we thought schools would never reopen again,” recalls Lucy, a second-born in a family of four in Khomani Village in Mitundu, south of Lilongwe City.
She discovered that she was pregnant again four months into the suspenseful wait. About 13,000 girls got pregnant and 40,000 married before their 18th birthdays during the emergency school closure, reports the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare. The surge came three years after Parliament unanimously outlawed marriages involving boys and girls aged below 18. It confirmed that children are safer in school.
Lucy regrets sneaking out of her parents' home in the night to marry her fellow teenager, now repeating Standard Eight at her school.
“On 22 July 2020, I packed my clothes in a plastic bag and left. I thought marriage was rosy, but it wasn’t- because both of us were young and jobless,” she explains. The boy remained in school while the pregnant girl stayed home.
The couple looked up to their parents for everything. They separated within a month after members of a mother group persuaded Lucy to return to school after a miscarriage.
In January 2021, she re-enrolled in Standard Six despite being in Standard Seven when she left. Learning stopped once more in the wake of the second wave of COVID-19, but she remained resolute. She says she is working hard to achieve her dream of a better life. “I don't want to slip again. Marriage is no solution to poverty.”
“During the brief marriage, I lived in a little shop that could not accommodate a single bed. My husband beat me, I was starved and the shame of begging and slavish piecework in neighbouring fields was too much. I’m still too young to marry.”
Lucy salutes the child protectors who encouraged her to leave and told her that she was safer in school.
“They did well. They rekindled my desire to return to school after the miscarriage and my parents welcomed me kindly. My mother even accepted to take care of the child while I go to school,” she says.
Empowering adolescents and young people with sexual and reproductive health information
At school, Lucy gives her peers friendly advice against premarital and transactional sex, which fuels dropout rates, teen pregnancies, child marriage and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
For her, the spike of early pregnancies and marriages during the emergency school shutdown is a wake-up call for the government and its partners to sensitise parents and community leaders to safeguard young people during emergencies.
“Knowledge is power. If you give girls accurate information, they will stay in school, share experiences, delay their sex debuts and beat peer pressure which landed me in trouble,” Lucy explains.
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 Lucy make informed decisions about relationships and sexuality as well as provide care and treatment to adolescents living with HIV.
Lucy's mother, Bertha Masina, says parents have a primary responsibility to safeguard young people.
She says: “Teen pregnancies and child marriages were already rampant before the pandemic, so we need to educate most parents to value girls' education instead of pushing them to marry.
Here, neighbours laugh at you if you keep an adolescent girl in school. I was concerned when Lucy rushed into marriage. To end this, girls must remain in school until they are old enough to choose who and when to marry.”
Sexual violence almost a norm
The twin problem or child marriage and teen pregnancy constitutes the most tolerated form of sexual violence against girls below the marriageable age.
A 2013 national survey supported by UNICEF revealed that one in five girls experiences sexual abuse before her 18th birthday.
UNICEF supports the Government of Malawi to train district social welfare officers and community child protectors to swiftly manage cases of child abuse, rights violations and exploitation.
Bridget Mwale, assistant social welfare officer in Lilongwe, says the case management skills became handy when thousands of girls quit school for marriage during the school break.
“The pandemic has shown us that parents, schools, community leaders and child protection workers should do more to protect young people and keep them in school. Had we acted swiftly, the boy wouldn’t have impregnated the girl twice,” she says
Lucy is one of three teen mothers at her school. Seven girls who got pregnant during the lengthy school closure did not return.
“When I discussed Lucy’s situation with the mother group members, they made follow-up visits and persuaded the couple to separate. She obliged and teachers advise her to focus on her future,” headteacher Rose Gwande explains.
She is concerned that five in every 100 girls quit school due to poverty, parental indifference and cultural expectation for girls to marry and bear children.
“As a woman, I’m their role model. When a girl learns, she can become what she wants. The readmission policy gives teen mothers and other re-admitted learners a second chance,” she says.
And Lucy’s ex-husband encouraged her to start using contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy.
“We were too young to marry, and we couldn’t feed ourselves. Now we are just friends. We encourage each other to work hard in school for our own good and our daughter’s sake,” he explains.