It was a cultural practice so enshrined in communities in the northern parts of Karonga district. Almost every marriage in the area followed the practice, but once it changed to become a cause of child marriages, those supposed to defend it started fighting it.
Before the change, the Kupimbira cultural practice – by which girls are set into marriage at a tender age – was aimed at introducing boys and girls as suitors to each other and their respective parents.
And as they grew up, the engaged boys and girls knew what one were to the other. So did their respective parents and relatives. Those behind the practice believed that this strengthened marital unions as those involved got used to the environment with both sets of relatives.
But like anything else that is bound to change, the way the practice was conducted changed. It became probably the worst cause of early and child marriages, according to Traditional Authority (TA) Mwakaboko.
“In those days, parents whose children were involved in the practice would wait for the girl to grow up and mature before they were officially presented to their husbands, in which case someone almost their age.
“Parents of the girl would guard her jealously against getting involved with other boys as she grew up. And it was working. Whenever the parents suspected that the girl had seen another man they would involve her aunt and once confirmed, they would beat her severely. Thus, any girl involved in the practice would be faithful and enter marriage while a virgin,” explains the chief.
The parents, he adds, were primarily involved in organising the marriages because usually under the lobola practice, it is the parents of the groom paying the bride price to those of the bride and not the groom himself.
Unfortunately, this, he observes, is what helped change the nature of the practice. He says many parents started abusing the cultural practice and organised marriages for their daughters even with men that were far much older than the daughters.
“Unlike at the beginning, when parents would wait for their daughters to grow before they would marry, there came a time when young girls would be sent into marriage as soon as a husband was identified. Unfortunately, the husbands were men very much older than the girls,” he says.
Mwakaboko adds this defeated the entire purpose of Kupimbira. He notes that the change was necessitated by changing lifestyles.
“Both the girls’ parents and the men marrying them doubted whether the girls would remain faithful enough when left with their parents,” he says.
Today, there are interventions towards reducing child marriages fostered by the practice having identified the consequences and impact they have on young girls. Mwakaboko says non-governmental organisations (NGOs) started fighting the practice, mainly, as a human rights issue.
Grecian Mbewe, Karonga district coordinator for the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), says in fighting the practice, his organisation implemented a Learn Without Fear project in the area during which many stakeholders were engaged.
“In as far as early and child marriages are concerned, we trained the pupils that choosing who to marry was their right. Thus, it should be them deciding who they want to marry rather than their parents deciding spouses for them. We also trained the girls on the age at which it was healthy for them to get married and warned them about the dangers of getting into marriage while still young. The parents were also involved in the trainings which focused on the dangers of marrying off girls at a tender age,” explains Mbewe
He adds that the organisation has been withdrawing from marriages girls that were married-off at a tender age.
Mwakaboko says apart from CHRR, Livingstonia Synod Aids Programme (Lisap) also implements programmes aiming at undoing the effects of the cultural practice.
He notes that the initiatives NGOs employed to tackle the cultural practice barely produced fruits until chiefs were roped in.
“The moment the parents noticed that the NGOs were targeting them and that they were bent at killing the practice, they started doing it behind the scenes. I gathered all the Group Village Heads (GVHs) in my area and told them about the dangers of the practice, while urging them to join the fight against the harmful cultural practice,” says Mwakaboko.
He says together, they formed by-laws designed to ensure that any girl under the age of 18 was not in marriage. The by-laws, he adds, compel parents to treat both their girl and boy children equally and send them to school.
The power of by-laws set by traditional leaders to rout practices fostering early marriages does not only manifest in Mwakaboko’s area. The story is the same in Mzimba where another NGO, Every Child reports that girls are, mainly, married off to people working in South Africa.
“After sensitisation on the dangers of practices fuelling early marriages, we took a leading role in the fight against early marriages and started formulating by-laws. These by-laws are designed to punish parents of under-age children that are not in school. Cases of early marriages are on the decrease because of the role the chiefs took in fighting this problem,” says Inkosi Mabulabo.
Indisputably, chiefs are custodians of culture. But how does one presiding over societies with such cultural practices as kupimbira decide to formulate laws to punish those involved in it instead of appreciating and rewarding them?
“The moment you realise that you have not dressed properly, it is not that hard to decide to go back and dress properly before you continue,” says Mwakaboko.
“We were taught that the kupimbira cultural practice was bad. We saw how bad it was. That is why we came in to fight it. We all agreed on fighting it,” he adds.
Being dynamic, culture can team up with the new processes towards child protection and help in protecting children against early marriages, thus, ensuring that children realise their full development.