Malawi has the 11th highest rate of child marriage globally, with the recent Malawi Demographic and Health Survey showing that 47 in 100 women marry before their 18th birthday.
These are alarming statistics, but not many people were startled until Tamanda Chimombo, 23, put an emotional human face to the figures in her talk at a conference on how to end child marriage.
At 12, the 16th child in a family of 19 was forced to marry a man “the age of her father”.
“I was staying with my uncle who used to send me to a shop to get some household items on credit almost every day. The shop owner said he liked me so much, but I didn’t know why,” she narrates.
As a Standard Seven at Ligowe Primary School in Neno, Tamanda became a shopkeeper as her uncle said the businessperson needed an extra hand.
“I was excited to give a hand to Mr Chisale. Later, my uncle told me to move to the shopkeeper’s home,” she explains.
Ngoni girls are taught to respect elders. For a month, she combined household chores and shop-keeping.
Tamanda says she usually got disturbed when onlookers started calling her a wife of the married shop owner.
Tearfully, she recalls: “The major shock came in the second month when Mr Chisale openly told me I was his wife and that I owed him a baby. I wept and fled back to my uncle,” she recalls.
“Unfortunately, he shouted at me, asking why I was running away from my husband. Angrily, he disclosed offering me to marry Mr Chisale in exchange for the items I got from the shop because he could not pay back.”
Without choice, the minor stayed with the elderly husband for three months as she waited to go into Standard 8.
Guided by a well-wisher who advised her about the importance of education, Tamanda terminated the polygamous marriage and reported the matter to Neno District Welfare. The man was arrested and later convicted of marrying a minor.
The girl, who sought refuge in her grandmother’s home and went back to school, was scorned by her peers and adults for escaping from marriage.
“The insults made me work harder in school to show them that there is a brighter future beyond marriage,” she says.
A year after breaking free, Tamanda was the only student at Ligowe selected to a national institution—Blantyre Secondary School.
Today, she holds a diploma in human resource management. While working as signal monitoring officer at the Malawi Digital Broadcasting Network Limited in Lilongwe, she is studying for a degree in business administration at DMI University in Mangochi.
“We need to reach out to girls to know that they are not equal to marriage, but destined for greater things. If girls are empowered, it will be difficult to lure them into marriage,” she says.
Senior Chief Chikumbu of Mulanje asks traditional leaders to ensure no parent forces or allows a minor to marry. She wants community leaders to take action and report child marriages in line with the Marriage Act and by-laws which outlaw marriages involving girls below 18.
“We are sometimes let down by the police and courts which leave some perpetrators scot free,” says Chikumbu.
Concurring, gender activist Emma Kaliya calls for concerted efforts by organisations to avoid duplicating and concentrating interventions in one area while other localities remain unreached.
“We need to reach out to all areas. Child marriage is an issue and we need more advocacy to protect the rights and well-being of girls,” she says.
Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Jean Kalilani says government will intensify the push to ensure every girl learns and achieves her potential.
“This is more the reason we have the re-admission policy,” she says. “Girls must go back to school after dropping out due to marriage or teen pregnancy.”
According to the World Bank, only 27 percent of girls in the country enrol in secondary school. The majority are not in school and susceptible to early marriage. n