Impregnated and forced to marry at 15 in 2002, Gloria Bush, 28, never thought events would soon turn around for her good.
The marriage did not last. After a few months, the then 17-year-old husband—her former classmate—changed his mind.
“He started saying he was not the only one that I slept with; hence, he could not be responsible for the pregnancy,” she says.
The turn of events left Bush, who comes from Kalima Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Maseya in Chikwawa, in a fix. But not long afterwards, she met another man, a labourer hired along with a construction company to construct [classroom] blocks at Kalima Full Primary School.
She is now in Standard Seven at the same school, where her youngest daughter is in Standard Two.
Bush says the man assured her that after the construction project, he would take and live with her and the child at his village in Mulanje.
He did not fulfil his promise.
“The project took some years and he lived in my house until the project ended. He provided for all our needs and we never starved,” she narrates.
No wonder she trusted the man. In no time, she decided to stop using contraceptives to have more children.
“I could not question his faithfulness and trustworthiness until the project came to an end. He left without even bidding farewell. I was very shocked because he left me after we had two children together. I now have three children without a father,” narrates Bush.
Thus, without any reliable source of income, the foursome was pushed into destitution, mainly subsisting on piecework.
United States Aid for International Development (USAid) maternal, newborn and child health specialist, Evelyn Zimba, says Bush could be one among thousands of vulnerable girls who fell into the marriage trap while searching for reliable means of survival.
Zimba says a research her organisation conducted in 2014 showed that thousands of girls were coaxed into marriage by boys and sometimes older men who promised them better life.
She explains: “We found that one in every four teenage girls is pregnant and starts bearing children in Malawi. This is very worrisome for the nation. It puts lives of our adolescent girls in danger.”
The specialist further states that another glaring issue coming out of the research was that economic deprivation is the driving force behind girls opting for early marriages.
“We discovered that most such girls come from poor backgrounds where parents cannot provide for them to stay in school. Hence, marrying early becomes the most ideal means of survival.
“But the saddest thing is that these marriages deny innocent girls their right to education and a bright future,” Zimba says.
Programme adviser responsible for population and family planning in the USAid-funded Health Policy Project (HPP), Laston Mteka-Banda, notes that lack of access to information on sexual and reproductive health services in schools worsens the situation.
He says if learners had such information, they would make informed decisions and prevent unplanned pregnancies.
“I think it is time we came up with a deliberate policy aimed at integrating innovative advocacy and communications on sexual and reproductive health and family planning messages in school syllabi. Otherwise, we’ve a big task to end early and child marriages and also promote education in the country,” says Mteka-Banda.
Bush concurs, saying she was carried away by the men due to poverty.
“I was raised up together with my five siblings by a poor single mother. Our parents divorced when we were still young. It was hard for our mother to provide for all six of us,” she says.
The mother of three recalls how she and her siblings would go to school hungry, without necessary materials such as notebooks and pens.
Fortunately though, Bush does not want her past to define her future. She has picked up the pieces and has joined her biological children at Kalima Full Primary School where she is doing her Standard Seven.
She vows she will never be swayed by men again because she has learnt her a lesson.
“I am working hard and I want to become a nurse. I want to be an economically independent mother one day. Early marriage taught me a good lesson. There is nothing good about it except destitution and bondage,” says Bush.
Her school’s head teacher, Joseph Bondo, says Bush is one of the best performing learners at the institution.
But Bondo fears that her family obligations and lack of support could frustrate her efforts.
“We are trying hard to motivate her by providing her with toiletries and learning materials. But that is not enough, because she needs to feed her children whose food the school cannot provide. I wish well-wishers could come in to support her,” he explains.