In February 2017, the constitution was amended to reflect changes in the bill making marriage before the age of 18 illegal. These constitutional amendments were the outcomes of efforts by child protection movements in the country. However, a lot of work remains to be done in rural communities where child marriages are still rampant. USAID, through its flagship Orphans and Vulnerable Children’s (OVC) program – One Community, is working with 53 community-based organizations (CBOs) in southern Malawi to prevent child marriages.
One Community tailors Community Based Organization (CBO) capacity strengthening activities to each organization’s needs. Capacity strengthening plans are developed after each CBO has self-assessed its strengths and weaknesses using tools developed by One C. The parameters assessed include capacity for governance and strategy development, financial management, administration and human resource management, project design and management, technical capacity, network and advocacy experience and capabilities, as well as community ownership and accountability.
Findings from the capacity self-assessments revealed several common organizational challenges among all of the CBOs. These included: lack of community-level HIV data, poor knowledge of national level policies, weak organizational structures, and lack of resource mobilization skills. As a result, One Community has trained CBOs in these areas. As part of these trainings, CBOs were trained in how to conduct Community Action sessions with community stakeholders as a way to share the knowledge they gained from the trainings as well as identify and prioritize community problems and develop community-led plans to address these problems. From these sessions, community members identified child marriage and school dropouts as the main problems in their communities – which has led One Community to provide additional support in these areas.
“Using this process, we uncovered why child marriages and school dropout cases are rampant in our community and, together, we found solutions that could be implemented by the CBO with assistance from taskforce members,” shares Damiano Kamba, Mchere CBO Chair.
Addressing the problem of Child Marriages in Malawi
1. Alinafe’s Story
The future is bleak for 13-year-old Alinafe Katumbwe of Nkane Village, Mulanje. In February 2018, her mother married her off to a 30-year-old man from a neighboring village. Several community members were appalled by this arrangement and informed the area’s Child Protection Worker, Arnold Limited.
“I approached the household several times, the mother refused to terminate the marriage because her son-in-law is strong enough to till the lands for her and bring their household food,” Arnold Limited explains. “Alinafe’s husband moved into their house and reports of sexual abuse have reached me as the man loudly shares at local pubs about how Alinafe cries every time he touches her.”
Cases like Alinafe’s are very common in Nkane Village. In February 2017 alone, Arnold received ten new cases of child marriages. “I report the cases to the police and government social welfare offices. Sometimes they intervene, but sometimes, due to fuel restraints, nothing is done” Arnold concludes with saddened eyes. Arnold brought Alinafe’s case to Malire CBO, a beneficiary of the One Community CBO Capacity Strengthening training. Alinafe and the CBO worked together to protect Alinafe.
“Various meetings were held with the household, however, the mother still refused to terminate the marriage. We informed the social welfare office of the matter and they then called the police. In May 2018 the man was arrested,” Arnold exclaims.
2. Afatsileni’s Story
Twelve-year-old Afatsileni Mpakela from Chiwalo village in Phalombe faced a similar tragedy. Afatsileni lost her parents in 2011 when she was just 5-years-old. Since then, she has been raised by her mother’s sister. Growing up, life was not easy for Afatsileni. She received constant beatings from her aunt for trivial mistakes and was made to work harder than anyone in the household. Despite this, Afatsileni still hoped for a better future, dreaming of finishing school and becoming a nurse.
In January 2017, Afatsileni’s aunt abruptly told Afatsileni that she would no longer be able to go to school due to lack of “School Development Fund” money – A MK 400 ($.50) contribution made by every student every term for the development of the school – mostly infrastructural-related development. Afatsileni recalls what her aunt told her; “She told me to focus on helping around the house, she asked me to go to local bars to ask men for money.” Afatsileni refused to do her bidding and her refusal was met with scolding.
“In December 2017, I returned home from my chores to an ecstatic aunt. She gestured her hand towards 10 bars of soap and new clothes on the floor,” recalls Afatsileni with tears in her eyes. “[These were] a present from my newly found suitor -- a business man from Mozambique. I was very saddened by this; my future wasn’t worth more than a box of soap and some clothes [according to my aunt].” Afraid of her fate, Afatsileni fled from her aunt’s house to seek comfort from her grandmother in neighboring village 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) away.
“I was very shocked to see my grandchild come to me so frantically. She explained her burdens and I told her to make arrangements to go inform Dindi CBO representatives who had been working with One Community to protect children in the area,” shares Liney Rampwa, Afatsileni’s grandmother.
Hastily, Afatsileni brought her woes to Dindi CBO. Representatives present listened to her story and together they went back to her aunt’s house to gather further insight and determine what action to take in order to protect Afatsileni.
“Her aunt was not pleased with our visit. However, we informed her of government’s laws against child marriage and the many ways child marriage could negatively affect Afatsileni, such as challenging early pregnancies just to name a few,” explains Mofley Barton, Dindi CBO chair. “She was informed that Afatsileni would continue living with her grandmother as it was a safer environment. We also informed her that if she continued to push for Afatsileni’s marriage, the issue would be brought to the attention of the chief, who we now work with to fine child marriage perpetrators a hefty fine of MK 20,000 ($27).”
Afatsileni is now living with her grandmother and has since returned to school.
3. Dayisoni's Story
In the fight against child marriages, boys have not been left behind. For 17-year-old Dayisoni Bwana of Thumbulu Village, Phalombe, interventions from Chikondano CBO to end his marriage to 16-year-old Chaza Magunda were met with relief. “I was running away from problems in my mother’s home. We are 8 children in our family and it was getting more difficult for my mother to provide for us all. When I saw people in the area who were married, they seemed to have less problems so I decided to get married too.’’
Dayisoni married his school mate Chaza, and they both dropped out of school to start their life together. However, life wasn’t as easy as he had anticipated. He became a fisherman, fishing for small fish in Lake Chirwa. Unfortunately, Dayisoni’s returns were not many, as fish in the drying lake continue to be scarce. With an average earning of MK 2000 ($2.70) a day to split between his home and his mother’s home, he could barely make ends meet.
Chikondano CBO representatives approached Dayisoni and Chaza and their parents. The representatives communicated the illegality of the children’s marriages. They were asked to terminate the marriages before the matter went to the Chief where they would be required to pay fines.
“We have both returned to our parents’ homes. Chaza returned to school and I am saving money so that I do the same,” explains an elated Dayisoni, who further went on to pledge to not get married for the next five years.
“I was happy to have my daughter back, her father and I fought against this marriage because she was too young and full of potential to be more and better than what I became,” explains Mwadaine Japani, Chaza’s mother who sells donuts in the local market. “It was unfortunate that during our time education was not free. As such, we were forced to marry in search of a better life. But, Chaza has better opportunities than I did, and it broke my heart to see her waste them away.”
Community Bylaws Help to Enforce the Prohibition of Child Marriages and Ensure Children Return to School: Mchere and Njeza CBO’s Story
CBOs supported by One Community in all districts work with traditional and faith-based leaders and law enforcement to form community taskforces with the mandate to prevent child marriages.
In Nsanama, Machinga district, traditional authorities working with the Mchere CBO taskforce have created bylaws to stop child marriages in the community and ensure that children in the area, especially girls, stay in or return to school.
“If a child drops out of school, we work with the chief to fine parents one chicken, upon the promise that the child will return to school. If the child does not return to school the fines are elevated. Cases of child marriage in the area carry a large fine of one goat and the chief works with the police to bring an end to the marriages,” shares Damiano Kamba, Mchere CBO Chair.
Since the bylaws were put in place in Nsanama, 35 children have gone back to school. Damiano hopes that the children’s return to school will ensure delays in their marriage and offer them the opportunity to better themselves and the community.
Returning children back to school is the first step. The second step is to help parents keep their children in school through activities that support uniforms, books and school development funds required every term. “The CBO committee contributes money to buy books and pens to assist these children, but this is not enough as members tap from their own pockets and they too are not well-to-do. As chiefs, we found land to farm various crops for sell so that the money can be used to help the most vulnerable children. Unfortunately, the weather has not been kind to our crops,” elaborates Chief Chiundu, Mchere taskforce member.
CBOs have also extended their work to focus on younger children in their community (specifically those 3- to 7-years-old) in order to offer better foundations for the children. Njeza CBO in Chikwawa is working with churches in its community to establish Child-Based Care Centres (CBCC), which cater to children in the area who cannot afford to go to private nursery schools. The children learn basics, such as numbers and the alphabet. They also get a chance to play with toys that stimulate their development. To date, they have opened 3 centres with a membership of 107 children.
The successes of the interventions continue to trickle in, children are being protected and are continuing with their education all because of community members who have been unwavering in their commitment to solving their own community problems.