Silenced into marriage

We tata! We tata! Musamboke! Such was one girl’s desperate cry for help one night in Chikutu, a hilly setting almost 15 kilometres north-west of Karonga Town.

For hours, Rodness, 15, endured relentless beatings and angry reprimands from her father, village headman Mwipimeghe, when she arrived home on May 22 around 9pm.

With both hands and legs tied, the adolescent girl could neither escape nor block the whip falling on her back.

Like a lamb being led to a slaughterhouse, she was taken to Benex Mbughi, 15, who is suspected to have kept her till late that night.

 ‘‘My father never allowed me to explain why I came late,’’ says Rodness.

Just like that, the 15-year-olds were forced to quit school and marry.

Forced marriages of this kind are not few in Kilupula where almost 40 girls dropped out of school early this year.

They worsen the occurrence of child marriages in the country, with the United Nations reporting that one in two women marry before their 18th birthday.

Chikutu, which is home to about 10 000 Malawians, is only reachable through a narrow, battered, rocky footpath which meanders past hills and valleys.

In the far-flung setting, we met Rodness and her husband under a one-room grass-thatched hut two weeks ago.

When we arrived that sunny Saturday afternoon, she was pounding groundnuts for seasoning vegetables for lunch.

She appeared embarrassed, teetering between self-denial and low self-esteem.

When we asked for an interview on how forced marriages are costing futures of many girls in the area, she grimaced shyly before refusing to talk to us.

 ‘‘Who are you?” she asked, determined to keep her story private.

It took a community member to persuade her to loosen up.

 ‘‘I don’t want to see my father’s face again,” she said when she finally opened up. “He has killed me. If only he had heard me out, I would still be in school.’’

Married off against her will, Rodness was in Standard Seven when she dropped out.

Her husband and agemate, Benex, was in Form Two.

In Karonga, many guardians seem indifferent to girls’ right to education.

They hastily force adolescent girls to marry their perceived suitors when they return home late or are seen chatting with boys by the roadside.

Some families marry off their daughters for economic gains.

A traditional practice, commonly called Chitholaminga, requires men and boys facing Benex’s ‘offence’ to pay a fine to the bride’s parents.

His father, Mr Mbughi, is billed to pay K250 000 for the “sins of his son” who kept the village head’s daughter beyond sunset.

“I am required to pay all that money to Rodness’ father, but I cannot afford,’’ Mbughi says.

Benex has never been in class since the nightfall he was spotted hanging out with Rodness.

‘‘I was told that something tragic will happen to my son if he continues going to school,’’ says Mbughi.

He was forced out.

Group village headman Chisi of the area says he is aware of this widespread form of child marriages, but says: “I am yet to follow up on the case of the 15-year-olds.”

The traditional leader attributed early and forced marriages to poverty, parent’s indifference to girls’ rights and harmful traditional practices.

Marriages involving girls below 18, the legal marriageable age, violates the country’s laws.

However, marriage laws are rarely enforced and prevailing traditional norms often take precedence.

During the visit, the 15-year-olds had spent two weeks in the forced marriage but their case had not been reported to police.

Talking about child marriages is a taboo in Kilupula.

Many adults regard it a necessary evil.

T/A Kilupula said that he was not aware of Rodness story, but called for an end to forced and arranged marriages involving minors.

Many adolescent girls in the rice-growing area are marrying men twice their age, including their father’s agemates.

Recently, Ngerenge Area Development Committee (ADC) reported that 36 teenage girls from Chikutu, Kasisi, Mwanjasi and Mwaulambo dropped out of secondary school to marry.

These illegal marriages put teenage girls at a great risk of pregnancy-related deaths.

Karonga District Hospital (KDH) warns that girls will keep dying unless preventive measures are put in place to reverse the tide.

The hospital attends to about five teenage girls with obstructed labour every day, official statistics show.

The adolescent mothers face many birth-related complications because their bodies are not fully developed, health workers say.

For Rodness and Benex, the future increasingly looks cloudy.

Speaking from the veranda of their one-room, grass-thatched hut, they decried many uncertainties as they have no skill and steady source of income.

We asked village headman Mwipimeghe about the future of his daughter and he had few words.

“I will bring her home soon,’’ he said.

However, many do not return to their angry parents.

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