If it were not for the intervention of village elders in stopping her parents from marrying her off at 13, Catherine Mkandawire would have become another statistic.
Malawi has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. According to the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey of 2015, some 42 percent of girls are married before 18 and 9 percent before age 15, with almost a third falling pregnant before they turn 19.
By avoiding that fate, Mkandawire, who lives in a rural locality in Nkhata Bay, was able to get an education and earned an advanced degree in community development.
Now 28, she is a climate advocate and a leader in United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Safeguard Youth Programme, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, which champions youth, including protecting girls from child marriage.
The best way to do this, she believes, is by promoting economic empowerment for the most vulnerable girls in a country where 52 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Widespread poverty can drive families to marry off young daughters or expose girls to gender-based violence and other harmful practices.
“Most young people, especially girls, lack so many things. This makes them easy targets for exploitation,” Mkandawire explains. “For them to be safe, they need to be able to make their own decisions. This requires access to opportunities.”
Like UNFPA, she recognises that livelihoods, sexual and reproductive health, rights and climate change are interrelated.
“More extreme weather due to the destruction of our environment brings hunger to communities. With parents unable to feed their children, young people are exposed to high levels of risk, including in their own behaviour,” she states.
Mkandawire decided that she should lead not only in protecting and preserving the environment, but earning a living from it to inspire her peers.
She started by planting 2 500 pine trees at the foot of a mountain on family land, then added beehives that produce 20 litres of honey per week, a fish pond surrounded by wildflowers and a banana crop.
Diversifying land use beyond subsistence farming to a smaller and more sustainable set of activities is reaping rewards. With the money she makes from selling honey, Mkandawire pays the salaries of five employees, school fees for her two siblings and supports her ageing parents.
“At first, people were sceptical of this project, but when they saw it working to conserve the environment, more youths started coming to learn from me,” she recalls. “Even the chief from our area donated land for the youth to expand the forestry project.”
Building climate resiliency
Malawi is one of the least electrified countries in the world. According to the census of 2018, 11 percent of the population of 18 million is connected to the national electric grid and six percent uses solar energy to light their homes. This is way below the global average of 90 percent, according to the World Bank.
Access to electricity is disproportionately low in rural areas such as Mkandawire’s village. The census shows that just four percent has access to grid power over four decades since the establishment of thee Malawi Rural Electrification Programme in 1980.
This has contributed to deforestation, as people driven by poverty illegally cut down trees even in national parks and forest reserves to make charcoal for cooking and sale. The appetite for charcoal and fuelwood remains high, with nine in every 10 homesteads using these forest products for cooking.
Since 2010, Malawi has lost an average of 42 000 hectares of forest. In 2016, the government committed to restoring 4.5 million hectares by 2030, more than a third of its land area.
Every Saturday, Mkandawire holds ‘climate talks’ about environmental conservation, and climate change as an entry point to engage the youth on sexual and reproductive health issues.
Many of the young people she has trained can now pay for their own school fees by working on climate-related jobs, which are important in the face of extreme weather events such as Tropical Storm Ana, which affected about one million people and displaced hundreds in Malawi two months ago.
“Before this initiative, charcoal burning was destroying our forests,” she says. “But now with many youths doing beekeeping, there is hope that our forests will survive,” she said .