Keeping girls in school reduces child marriages. But what happens after knocking off puts rural girls at risk. Our Contributor SANJE MSISKA writes.
After school hours, a girl we shall call Phyles Chigwalale, from Nkhombwa in Rumphi East, had no activities to keep her busy.
One weekend, the girl and her peers travelled to Mlowe Trading Centre where thousands had gathered on a market day. In the crowd, she met a man who proposed love over some drinks and they had sex.
Two months later, she was pregnant and her parents forced her to the man who impregnated her.
“It is common here that when a girl gets pregnant, she is forced to marry the man responsible. Some parents force you to marry even when they just find you chatting with a man or boy,” says the girl, now 17.
As Phyles lingered with her friends to while hours away, their peers in Blantyre City might have been playing netball, volleyball, basketball, martial arts, chess and other games at the Blantyre Youth Centre.
Such inequalities could be fuelling early marriages in Malawi, where half of the girls marry before their 18th birthday.
After school hours, girls in urban areas have a wider variety of youth-friendly activities, including health lessons, than their peers in rural areas.
“These inequalities are really detrimental. There is need to find a way of keeping the girls busy. The more idle they are, the more likely they will engage in activities that will see them entering marriage at a tender age,” says Senior Chief Mlolo of Nsanje.
Early marriages are common in her remote territory. Save for sports afternoons, rural schoolgirls usually roam marketplaces—a pastime that exposes them to risky sexual encounters.
“You can’t expect a girl in my area not to marry young. After classes, she just stays at home. In urban areas, girls would be using such time to learn, particularly through television and other activities,” says Mlolo.
Concurring, sociologist and behaviour change specialist Mike Nazombe says cultural systems that prepared girls to resist marrying young have snapped.
He says: “Westernisation has taken over most of what kept adolescents busy right in the rural settings. Today, you will not find girls socialising with elderly women or pounding maize. As such, the indigenous knowledge that kept the girls busy can no longer be shared.
“Nowadays, young girls go to trading centres and gather around shops to admire others sending and receiving messages on mobile phones.”
Nazombe is concerned that most girls have become easy prey for men who entice them with money, gifts and other favours.
“Once they start frequenting the trading centres, you will soon see them coming back pregnant. The values they share wherever they gather are different from what one used to get from the elderly,” he says.
In 2016, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recommended extensive delivery of youth-friendly health services to tackle early marriages and teen pregnancies.
Foundation for Children’s Rights (FCR) executive director Jennifer Mkandawire says early marriages will drop if rural girls are as empowered as their urban peers.
She says: “Those in urban settings stay longer in school because they have access to information, which we say is power. Therefore, we can begin to end child marriages, particularly in rural areas, by empowering girls with information.
“That information can be provided through role models or television, which could flourish with a rural electrification programme. You cannot trust that adolescents can give each other constructive information.”
Nazombe wants change agents to learn from indigenous knowledge, especially how older women “positively guided” a girl through adolescence until she was old enough to marry.
“I am saying ‘positively’ because some older women counsel girls to enter marriage as is the case with Chinamwali [initiation rites] where girls are told not to fear men since, as they put it, men are babies,” he says.
When it is not a sports afternoon, rural schoolgirls usually roam marketplaces. These walks expose them to risky sexual encounters.
And Panos Institute Southern Africa’s knowledge management and communications manager Vusumuzi Sifile says there is need to intensify collaboration of traditional leaders, non-governmental organisations and government agencies and line ministries to tackle child marriage, especially in the rural areas.
Panos is working with Plan International and other organisations to raise awareness about child marriage, and how different stakeholders can address the vice. This feature has been produced as part of the Ending Child Marriages in Southern Africa project by Panos Institute Southern Afri