By Wanjala Wafula
I received an invitation from the Commonwealth headquarters in London to visit Malawi recently and the enthusiasm blinded me from the realism that lay before me. I have been traveling extensively in the last few years but a sense of uneasiness overwhelmed me as soon the plane touched down in Lilogwe, which is the capital city. I was in Malawi for fifteen days to work with traditional chiefs, human rights activists, boys and girls on eradicating the child marriage monster that continues to shackle girls as young as twelve to bondage, destruction, hopelessness, disease, illiteracy and even death. I need divine inspiration to complete this piece because I cannot control my tears now.
After two days on the road from Lilongwe, through the scarcity ravaged vicinity and a transitory layover at Mususu, we ultimately reached Karonga, a small town on the shores of the expansive breath taking Lake Malawi in the North. Like numerous visitors before us, the exclusive Mikoma Beach Resort was a pleasurable distraction from the human dishonor that typifies life in rural Malawi.
After enjoying heavy breakfast that included a taste of the universally acknowledged Chambo fish, I could not help but notice a number of girls still in their teens playing about at the Hotel. Some were idly siting at the swimming pool and gazing at the water, seemingly lost in their thoughts. There was also a group of them by the beach engrossed in play and chit-chat as the rays of the sun pricked through the fresh waters of the lake from the Mozambique side.
As I strolled to the parking lot to meet my friend paramount Chief Kyungu, I come across a distraught girl struggling to calm a baby clutched on her back. “My name is Joana Mulekeni”, she quickly responds to my greeting. “I am fourteen years old and this is my son. They were twins but one died just two weeks after being born. I was twelve when they married me off to a seventeen year old boy from my village. They paid one cow and twenty thousand Malawi Kwacha. The boy that married me disappeared from the village just after a few months because he could not provide for us. I also decided to find help and I am now supported by an organization that provides me and the baby with some food and medicines. I always wanted to be a Journalist but my family made me useless”, we both stared at each other, speechless.
I later joined a group of girls as we all walked to the conference room where the training was going to take place. “I curse the day I was born a girl” I heard one girl cursing at my back. “Other girls in other parts of the world are either in school, colleges or working in big offices while here we are goods for Lubola (dowry)I can’t imagine my friend qualified for University while I wasted my life with a fifty six year man who died three years ago. Now what will I do with the four children yet I am not even twenty” she laments bitterly to her friends as we walk on.
I can confirm in this third rate column that child marriage is shaped by customs, religion and poverty and exacerbated by ethno-religious dilemmas, perennial conflicts and environmental disasters. Girls are denied the right to education, made to toil in domestic servitude and live in physical seclusion in their ‘husbands’ marital homes. Child brides everywhere in Africa are disempowered, susceptible and oppressed.Girl brides have less access to educational, family planning and obstetric care services, reside in poorer and rural areas, are victims of physical or sexual violence, have their right to free movement restricted, and are denied access to health and social services. According to Commissioner Chimwemwe of the Malawi National AIDS Control Council, “Child marriage is the worst form of human rights abuse that continues to be propagated with downright Impunity.
Despite numerous initiatives by activists, civil society, governments and the global development community, child marriage has failed to go away with scary statistics emerging that the vice is worsening in some countries in Africa. Explanations for the persistence of child marriage in Africa revolve around failed operationalization and implementation of existing legislation; weakness of child protection and human rights agencies; and the perpetual acceptance of harmful cultures and traditions. Experts also warn that the sustained failure to directly address the drivers of the vice has remained a key impediment as men, boys and communities continue to be side-lined in programming.
For Africa to achieve the dramatic shift away from child marriage, more has to be done to link policy initiatives with grassroots apprehensions. Policymakers must also design and implement smart interventions that convince communities about the dangers associated with child marriage and the benefits of girl’s education. An alternative model for communities must emerge where they are challenged to make tough decisions about the future for girls in the face of harmful traditions and customs, poverty, illiteracy and widespread gender inequality and violence.
I plead in this column that child marriage severely impedes development efforts including undermining initiatives to raise girls’ education, to reduce maternal mortality, and to increase employment and enterprise levels. I keep insisting that child marriage is an outcome of the sanctioned acceptance of devious cultural, societal and customary models that profile and oversee the supposed privilege of men and boys at the cost of women and girls vulnerability. Child marriage is traditionallywrapped as a social requirement, but it amounts to socially licensed exploitation of girls, some as young as six.
Allow me to humbly suggest that there is a need for complete paradigm shift in terms of programming around child marriage. There is need to focus on grassroots initiatives that are participatory in nature and utilize the expertise and tools that are respected by men, boys and target communities. This shall galvanize support towards the eradication of child marriages across Africa. There is also need to spur change through culturally sensitive, human rights-based approaches that promote collective abandonment of the practice with men, boys and communities taking a lead.
I May not accurately recall where I read this but child marriage is a violation of children’s rights. Despite being prohibited by international law, it continues to rob millions of girls around the world of their childhood. It forces them out of education and into a life of poor prospects, with increased risk of violence, abuse, ill health or early death. 15 million girls marry before the age of 18 each year, the equivalent of 1 every 2 seconds.