The gold that is a girl child

In 2011, the United Nations declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child. Being launched under the theme: Ending Child Marriage, Ephraim Nyondo shows how protecting a girl child from early marriage can be Malawi’s hidden gold.

There is a single-roomed shack, built of mud and reeds, without a window, about 100 metres from Shire River in Mchacha Village, T/A Tengani, Nsanje, to the southern tip of Malawi.

It is the home of Mr and Mrs Zandivuta Beka.

“The house was built for us by church people three years ago. All along, we were living with different relations,” says Beka.

The couple are both blind and helpless. They have never been to school. Worse still, they do not have land, which means they cannot farm.

Of course, Beka, despite his physical disability, understands he is still the head of the house.

So, he carries a panga early in the morning and wobbles near Shire River. He cuts small branches that, when dry, they are firewood which he sells at K10 per bunch.  

“The proceeds from the selling,” says Angeshita Zandivuta, the wife, “is enough to buy us salt and sometimes, maize.”

Surely, growing up in such an impoverished family can be awful for a child, and even worse, a girl child. Yet, this is where Flora, the only child in the family, was born 14 years ago and is being raised.

She got her first pair of shoes at the age of 13, and it was a donation from a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Basically, everything she wears comes from donations.

Interestingly, Flora, as young as she is, does not appear defeated by the accident of her birth. Right in adversity, she is nursing a dream.  

“I have always dreamt of becoming a teacher,” she says, looking down shyly: “I believe that God will, one day, answer my prayer and my dream will come true.”

She wakes up at 5 am every day, sweeps the surrounding, and if there is food—which often is not there—she prepares it.

After that, she takes a bath, often without soap, puts on her uniform, takes her notebook from a corner of the house and says bye to her parents.

Then she begins her 900-metre walk to Mguda Primary School, where she is now in Standard Eight.

“If I get educated and become a teacher, I know my life will change. I will have money not just to build a good house for my parents but also to buy good food,” she says.

The hurdles of a girl child

The deepest hurdle Flora faces is not necessarily her parent’s destitution. Rather, she is a member of a vulnerable sex—a story that is shared by a number of girls across the country.

For instance, across much of Malawi, by the time she is 12, a girl is tending the household—cooking and cleaning.

Fewer than one in five girls make it to secondary school. This is according to the 2010 Demographic and Health Survey.  Nearly half are married by the time they are 18; one in seven across the country marries before she is 15. Then she gets pregnant.

The UN estimates that 16 million adolescent girls between 15 and 19 become mothers every year.

It adds that adolescent pregnancies are most common among poor and less educated girls.

Even worse, the leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 in Malawi, according to the DHS 2010, is not accident or violence or disease; it is complications from pregnancy.

Girls under 15 are up to five times as likely to die while having children than are women in their 20s, and their babies are more likely to die as well.

If Flora gets caught in this web, it means her parents will not just continue to be destitute. She, too, will marry early, have many children, and in the end, maintain the cycle of poverty.

But if she triumphs over her world, she will turn into gold for her family. And this cannot easily happen without increasing Flora’s chances to progress with education.

“When girls are educated, healthy and can avoid child marriage, unintended pregnancy and HIV, they can contribute fully to their societies’ battles against poverty,” says Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA executive director.

The World Food Programme (WFP) in 2010 found that when girls and women earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it in their families. They buy books, medicine and bed nets.

Why International Day of Girl Child?

But how safe are girls from being married off at an early stage? This was the question at the heart of Plan International when it championed the cause for an International Day for the Girl Child.

“By designating October 11 as the Day of the Girl Child, we are all agreeing to put a special focus on the rights of girls throughout the world. We know that in many countries, girls lag behind in all areas of life, from school to work and many are prevented from fulfilling their true potential by severe discrimination and prejudice,” says Plan chief executive officer Nigel Chapman.

Protecting a girl child is not just the right thing for Malawi to do. It is also a smart thing because girls are agents of a nation’s development.

They can change a shack built of mud and reed in Mchacha Village into a mansion.

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