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Plight of the brave teenage girls who escaped child marriages in Malawi and are carving out bright futures for themselves after returning to school
- Unicef is working with victims of forced unions as part of an education project
- In Malawi, as many as 42 per cent of girls are married by the age of 18
- Adolescent birth rates in the southeastern African country are also high
- Nineteen-year-old Nelly escaped a violent husband after a forced marriage
The plight of young girls forced into child marriages in Malawi is thrown into stark relief in these harrowing stories from UNICEF.
The children’s charity is working with the teenage girls – some of whom have suffered domestic violence, contracted AIDS and become mothers at a young age – as part of a project to help get more children into education around the world.
Adolescent birth rates in the southeastern African country are high, while 42 per cent of girls are married by the age of 18.
These compelling stories of young girls overcoming adversity and pursuing education are being shared as children around the UK get settled into the new school year.
Nelly (centre) pictured with her school friends. The teen became a mother for the first time aged just 15 when she was befriended by an older man at a local market, and the pair married. He later became abusive; after fleeing the marriage, Nelly is back at school
In many Malawian communities, gendered barriers to schooling for girls include domestic chores, sibling care, distance to schools, and lack of safety, transportation, and hygiene facilities.
Expectations to marry, the risk of pregnancy, violence, lack of access to dignified menstrual hygiene, and barriers to a quality education are just some of the obstacles that limit girls’ lives and prevent them from reaching their full potential.
Around one in 10 girls under the age of 18 have experienced forced sexual intercourse or other unwanted sexual acts.
Violence against women in the home is frequently accompanied by violence against their children.
Evidence suggests that boys growing up in such homes are more likely to perpetrate violence, while girls are more likely to experience violence as adults later in life.
Nelly, 19, Namasimba
Nineteen-year-old Nelly is enrolled at Namasimba primary school. She is noticeably older than many of her classmates, but this is not uncommon in rural Malawi.
Nelly is the second child in a family of seven children living in Nkulumba village, some 2km away from Namasimba school where her siblings are also enrolled.
‘My father died a long time ago and my mother struggles to support us,’ said the teenager.
When Nelly was 15, she met a 21-year-old man at the market. He worked for an agricultural trading company so she believed he would take care of her and provide what she was lacking at home.
Without much of a formal ceremony, Nelly moved 900 kilometers away to the man’s home in the north and few months later she gave birth to a baby girl.
Nelly (right) has returned to a friendly environment at school after her horrific ordeal that saw her being forced into a child marriage, later escaping to return to her family
Away from her family and friends, Nelly became easy prey to the abusive man. ‘He would come home drunk and beat me. Sometimes he disappeared for days, leaving me and my daughter with nothing to eat,’ recalled Nelly.
She eventually got a message to her mother, who borrowed money for the bus fare to get her daughter and granddaughter home.
A few weeks after Nelly’s return, four women from the village came to visit her and her mother, and asked if she would like to return to school. She accepted, and her mother agreed to take care of her two-year-old baby.
The four women were members of a mother group, who work with teachers, parents and girls to promote girls’ education.
With support from the partners, UNICEF (unicef.org.uk) is empowering existing community structures such as mother groups to promote girls’ education.
This is being done within the UN Joint Programme for Girls’ Education (UNJPE) in Mangochi and two other districts; Dedza and Salima.
Coming back to school after almost two years was scary, Nelly confesses. She was afraid she would be the oldest in her class and that it would be difficult to catch up with the lessons.
She was particularly dreading the reaction of the other kids at school: ‘I was afraid they would laugh at me or tease me because I have a child now.
‘But on the first day, the head teacher announced at assembly that anyone who would make fun of me because I am a mother would be disciplined, so I think that helped.’
Every Friday the women from the mother group come to Namasimba primary school to meet girls from standard 5 to standard 8, typically aged 13 to 19 years.
Edna, 18, Mangochi District
When Edna was just 15 years old and in grade 5 of primary school, she fell pregnant.
To avoid the social stigma associated with having a pregnant daughter out of wedlock, as well as the burden of supporting an additional child, Edna’s mother, Enifa, took her to her boyfriend’s house to formalise their marriage.
The boyfriend’s family accepted responsibility, and Edna and her boyfriend started living as a married couple.
‘I was married for two weeks only, but they were the longest two weeks of my life,’ says Edna. ‘I had been told that marriage is a good thing but I didn’t like it at all. I missed home, I missed my mum and dad, and I wondered what my friends in school were doing.’
Edna’s dad, Adam, did not want his young daughter to get married. However, Mangochi is a matrilineal society and the mother and her family have more influence over the household and are the final decision makers. Hence Adam was unable to convince his wife to change her mind.
Edna was married when she was 15 years old after falling pregnant (pictured with her baby). After escaping the marriage, she has returned to school and is carving out a future
Edna and her parents and baby at their home in Mkumbira village in Mangochi. She says she ‘no longer bothers with boys’ and pours her energy into school work instead
Feeling helpless, Adam sought the help of a Child Protection Worker in the area, Hendrix Kawinga. Hendrix advised him to present the issue to their group village headman, Mkumbira.
Mkumbira took the case to TA Bwanyambi, Head Chief for Chowe. At a meeting at the Chief’s house, Edna’s mother was given two choices: either to end her young daughter’s marriage and pay a 5,000 Kwacha (£5) fine, or let the marriage continue but pay a hefty penalty of 40, 000 Kwacha (£41), as prescribed by the local decrees.
Since the family could not find the additional 35,000 Kwacha (£36) Edna’s mother went and fetched her daughter home.
Three years later, Edna’s son is in kindergarten and she has almost finished primary school. Chief Bwanyambi is ready to support Edna’s secondary school education, if she is selected.
‘I no longer bother with boys, instead I focus on school work,’ Edna says. ‘I want to become a nurse like my step-sister, who works at the hospital where I gave birth.’
The brave young girls who escaped traumatic child marriages