Takulandirani kuno kwa mfumu yayikulu Bwananyambi Kuchimake kwa azitsogoleri amene amalimbikitsa mamphunziro a ana achitsikana. Tili ndi ma By-laws amene sakulora kholo kukakamiza mwana wamkazi kusiya sukulu kapena kumukakamiza kupita ku banja.
These are the words inscribed on a road side signpost that welcomes you to Chief Bwananyambi’s home in Mangochi.
They mean: “Welcome to Chief Bwananyambi, the home of leaders who encourage girls’ education. We have by-laws that do not allow parents to force their daughters out of school or get married.”
The signpost, erected just about a metre from the main road, is not just a welcoming message to those visiting the place for the first.
It is also a stern warning to the Bwananyambi community members against depriving girls of their right to education and stealing their childhood by marrying them off at a young age.
Bwananyambi says girls from her area are coerced into early marriages by men who trek to South Africa looking for piece work.
She says the practice is common that those who marry such men are envied, but she is determined to put stop this practice.
Born Saujiya Phande many years ago, Bwananyambi is a tall and stout woman with a still voice of reason steadily breaking norms of stopping girls from going to school for early marriages.
She is the voice that echoes in her area, reminding everyone of the need to respect women and girls by according them a conducive environment to realise their full potential and dreams.
Hers is a voice that chides the patriarchal society she grew up in against objectifying a girl. Just like her physique she is tough, courageous and determined.
The chief’s personal story inspired her to champion girls’ education and use whatever in her power to protect them from early marriages and ensure they reach their full potential.
Bwananyambi recalls how she was married off at a young age because, back in the day, it was a norm and fashionable.
Parents saw no problem in marrying off girls. In fact, girls were groomed to become good wives and not career women.
“I have this anger within me. I do not feel good about the fact that I never had an opportunity to go to school. After I was elevated to a chief, I vowed to use my position to promote girls’ education,” she said, adding that the majority of people in her area lack basic education.
“My position is respected by people. A good leader is one who is able to intelligently articulate issues affecting the people of his or her area. To do that, one needs some form of education. Again, it is equally important to have subjects that are enlightened. I want my people to be educated,” she said.
She strongly believes that by educating a girl, you educate her family and the nation.
“Growing up, I never had female role models to look up to and dream of becoming like them. I want girls in my area to be role models for their families and children to build an educated generation.
To achieve this in a society that commodifies and looks down on girls was never going to be a walk in the park.
It would require more than just aspirations and words, but decisive action; hence, the formulation of the by-laws that govern and guide the conduct of all her subjects.
With the laws read out to all of her subjects, Bwananyambi is ending child marriages and educating girls.
The by-laws were formulated through consultation with all members of the community.
“I did this deliberately to avoid people thinking I was being harsh on them. Some chiefs even challenge to be dethroned if they fail to implement the laws.
According to the by-laws, no child- girl or boy- should be seen loitering around during school time. When found, parents are fined K55 000.
If parents marry off a girl below the age of 18, they are fined K35 000.
And if a minor is impregnated by a man older than her, the matter is immediately reported to the police. The case is treated as rape.
On top of that, the man is fined K70 000 plus community service.
Religious leaders are not allowed to bless any marriage where the girl is below the age of 18.
If found on the wedding day, the wedding is cancelled.
Bwananyambi says: “There is no one in my area who can claim not to know these laws and consequences of breaking the laws.”
So far, she has successfully ended two marriages while many others are pending conclusion.
Bwananyambi doesn’t just end marriages. She sends girls rescued from marriage back to school.
She pays their school fees and all other girls who cannot afford to do so.
One of the girls she has been paying school fees for is now at the Mzuzu University.
With K350 000 from her income, she started Bwananyambi Education Fund (BEF).
From the fund, she has sent 87 girls rescued from marriage and those who dropped out of school because of pregnancy, back to school.
Under her belt are two education projects: Go to school-targeting every child in the community and back to school-targeting those rescued from marriage and those that dropped out of school.
“I believe there can never be meaningful development in my community if people are not educated. I want to leave a good legacy-an educated community that protects girls from abuses.
Her main challenge is the lack of funds to help all those who need it.
“Many girls come to me for help, but I am unable to help them all. It pains me. I wish someone gave me a push financially to help these girls,” said the chief.
Out of 13 chiefs in Mangochi South, Bwananyambi is the only female, but is not intimidated.
“They never look down on me. When I speak, they listen.”
In February 2017, Parliament amended the Constitution and raised the age of marriage from 15 (with parental consent) to 18 years old for boys and girls.
The President signed the constitutional amendment into law in April 2017.
The move brought the Constitution in line with the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill adopted in February 2015, which sets the minimum age of marriage at 18.
Resolving legal inconsistencies is an important step towards protecting girls from child marriages, but more concerted efforts are needed.
A report by Unicef, State of the World’s Children 2016, says Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world, with approximately one in two girls married by the age of 18.
According to Unicef, many factors interact to place a girl at risk of marriage, including poverty, the perception that marriage will provide ‘protection’, family honour, social norms and customary or religious laws that condone the practice. n