Three years ago, it was not easy for girls in villages dotting Phalombe North-East to learn and achieve their potential.
Most teen girls were under siege from men who would subject them to sex abuse, including marrying them before the legal marriageable age of 18. This is a common setback to girls’ education across the country, where nearly half of women marry before their 18th birthday and a third of adolescent girls and young women fall pregnant.
Senior Chief Chiwalo was concerned that the girls were being subjected to unfair treatment, including early marriages and defilement which increase the risk of teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, HIV and deepening poverty.
“I did not know how to go about it,” he says. “I later consulted my fellow traditional leaders and prominent people to map the way forward. The situation was so bad that even teachers, who were supposed to be girls’ parents at school, were defiling them. Even when there were by-laws to protect girls, things never improved.”
Then the leaders met again to strategise on the next plan of action to ensure every girl remains in school until her dreams come true.
Giving every girl and boy quality education for life is one of the pillars of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to end all forms of poverty by 2030.
As such, the community leaders revised the by-laws to include stiff penalties, including arrests of every man who marries an underage girl.
“The girl is fined a goat and her parents pay a goat as well. The village head who allows this to happen is fined too. At first, the by-laws lacked enforcement. By ensuring that lawbreakers pay, the decline in girls’ abuse is unmistakable,” says Chiwalo.
While the chiefs enforced the by-laws, some community members started withdrawing girls from marriages.
Rachel Matemba, one of the terminators of child marriages, says the task was not easy.She tours her neighbourhood, talking to married girls in the absence of the husbands. When a girl was forced by her parents, she would go to meet them and discuss the danger of child marriage.
She narrates: “Once, a man told us that we were taking her beloved girl because we are too ugly to marry. Others threatened and chased us with pangas, clubs and sticks.
“They nicknamed us marriage breakers. We survived 14 incidences of violence, but managed to withdraw 12 girls from illegal marriages.”
The initiative is part of a Girls Empowerment Network (Genet) project to enable girls achieve gender equality both at home and in school.
Genet programmes adviser Takondwa Kaliwo says the organisation and community change agents will not relent despite the challenges and reprisals.
“We are concerned that many school-going children marry before they reach 18. Surely these girls need to be in school, but men entice them with some money and other fortunes they bring from town or South Africa. We are not saying they shouldn’t marry, but that they should go to school and reach the right age first,” she says.
For Kaliwo, training girls to remain in school and avoid marrying young is unfinished business without training boys and men as well.
So far, the project, termed Engage, has trained over 400 boys and men to champion gender equality and girls’ empowerment. The change agents include chiefs, who have become Chiwalo’s eyes and ears.
The project, credited with reducing child marriages in Phalombe, ends in September.
Phalombe district commissioner Roderick Mateauma asks community leaders to make child protection and girl empowerment part of their way of life so that the progress made does not vanish when Engage winds up.
“We erred in the past when tradition did not regard girls as deserving when it comes to education. Culture would rather teach a boy and leave a girl to marry when she wants. People need to change this mindset and accept that girls have a right to education and educating a girl has more benefits than a boy,” he says.
Mateauma warns against a tendency of treating boys as superior to girls. “Despite the prevailing cultural beliefs, what we do know is that if a girl is educated, she can become a future asset not only for the family, but entire village and nation,” he says.