As education officials work day and night to find lasting solutions to school drop-out rates that show no signs of scaling down, another monster, namely early marriages- threatens to reverse the gains in Mulanje District, as RICHARD CHIROMBO found out recently.
Caroline Mikwamba looked almost celebratory as she waited for the next popcorn customer at Namphungo Trading Centre in Mulanje this particular Sunday.
It was clear, however, that, deep down, her ceiling of self-esteem had dropped so low that she only wanted to hide.
“The thing is, I am only 14 years old but I have gone through a lot in my short stint on Earth. For example, I dropped out of Chisawani Primary School (in Mulanje) when I was 12 years old and married,” she confesses.
Caroline, who comes from Namphungo Village in the area of Traditional Authority Juma, says marriage was not an experience filled with roses and flowers.
“I immediately became the target of abuse and was often subjected to beatings and other forms of abuse. It’s an experience I would rather forget,” she says, excusing herself momentarily to attend to a female customer.
But the soft-spoken and shy Caroline hastens to say she was forced into marriage due to resource constraints. Faced with challenges such as lack of clothes, body lotion, and school shoes, she felt that the bright future education officials promise comes with so many sacrifices.
“So, when the next man I met proposed love to me, I accepted. I was not forced into marriage by my parents; I merely informed them that I had found a husband and they did not object,” she says.
Unfortunately, she is not the only one to have fallen into the pit of early marriage at the expense of education in Mulanje. She says she knows two girls of her age who are married in her village.
For 14-year-old Gloria Phiri, swapping school for marriage is the “worst decision I have ever made”. Experiences she encountered after dropping out of Chisawani Primary School in 2012 while in Standard 7 will forever remain etched in her memory.
“I thought life would be easy in marriage,” says Phiri. “Instead, I faced a number of unanticipated challenges.”
She urges girls to remain in school, saying resource constraints should not weigh down their hopes for a brighter future.
This story of girls swapping education for marriage repeats itself in the case of Mercy Wyson, who thought that education suited boys and not girls and became a family girl.
Frustrated by lack of resourced and wooed by the open arms of a matrimonial home, Mercy could not do otherwise but opt for the role of a house wife at the tender age of 12.
She only rescinded her decision when her mum, Estere Muliwa, encouraged her not to give up on her hopes of sitting Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations one day.
“I encouraged Mercy to take another go at education and, as a mother, I try to provide what I can because I realise that school is very good for her,” she says.
Poverty hampers school retention
At the top of girls’ grounds for dumping school is the issue of resource constraints.
One of the girls who dropped out of school to found a matrimonial home, Estere Muliwa, says the availability of resources such as school bags, shoes and uniform could go a long way in retaining girls in school.
Her sentiments are echoed by Mikwamba, who says lack of learning materials was one of the factors that influenced her decision to drop out of school.
“Well-wishers, the government and other organisations should ensure that resources are available for the girl-learner to do well in school and during national examinations,” says Mikwamba.
A local education official agrees. Namphungo Primary Education Advisor (PEA), Jimmy Villiera, says the sight of girls of school-going age busy carrying out domestic errands remains a cause for concern for local authorities.
“Some girls drop out of school after being lured by boys who into cultivate tomatoes, tomato cultivation being an income spinner in these areas. So, lured by prospects of money, some girls drop out of school and marry at a tender age,” says Villiera.
He, however, observes that some community initiatives have led to a decrease in school drop out rates.
“Although we are yet to come with the exact figures, there is a notable change as a number of girls have gone back to school,” says Villiera, adding:
“For example, we have Mother Groups. These are women who act as role models and encourage girls to remain in school. The girls also have models in form of primary and secondary school teachers as well as the Member of Parliament for Mulanje West, Hon. Patricia Kaliati.”
He says education officials are hopeful that these initiatives could help keep the girl-child in school.
Villiera looks after 12 primary schools, of which eight are full primary schools while four are junior primary schools.
Local problems, local solutions
While the spectacle of school-age girls washing plates continues to be part of life in Mulanje, local communities are generating ideas that would lead to a reversal of the situation. Among the lieutenants fighting for position change is Group Village Headman Mwawihe, who is the chairperson of the Chiefs Council, a network of traditional leaders who have the welfare of their subjects at heart, in the area.
The council, which has eight like-minded chiefs, has enacted by-laws applicable in areas that fall under the chiefs’ jurisdiction.
“For example, we have banned marriages of youths who have not yet clocked 20 years. Anyone who married at the age of 15 pays the fine of a goat,” says Mwawihe.
He says, apart from this, chiefs no longer allow children to attend dances that span all night long, imposing a curfew that becomes effective from 3 P.M.
“We want our children to remain in school,” he says. “As I am speaking, some of the children who dropped out of school are now back in class. Indeed, four girls who got pregnant while in school have gone back to school after taking care of the babies,” says the chief.
Apart from chiefs’ efforts, some community members have also adopted the role of peer educators. One of the educators, Loveness Kaipa, says she was inspired to take a leading role after observing that culture and negative stereotypes continue to conspire against the aspirations of women in the village, leading to a large number of girls dropping out of school or getting pregnant.
Kaipa, who comes from Chafikana Village, Traditional Authority Juma in Mulanje, is now using her experiences to motivate girls who have dropped out of school or become victims of early marriage.
“I faced my own challenges in terms of getting education opportunities. I used to do things out of ignorance and I think I also married while young. This is not strange here because there seems to be competition among girls to marry fast. There are lots of young people who married while at a tender age. In most cases, most girls marry after getting to Standard 8.”
While both chiefs and peer educators are doing a commendable job, it is not an overstatement to say that no one understands the development needs of Namphungo Trading Centre and surrounding villages better than Tikhiwa Pazala.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that he currently holds two influential positions: Area Development Committee (ADC) chairperson and Community Mobilisation Team (CMT) chairperson.
Pazala says: “We have established that most girls marry at an early age, while those still in school face the challenge of unprepared for pregnancies, and these cases prompted us to engage guardians and parents who force their children to marry at an early age.
“We have also created by-laws and, through the by-laws, we mete out punishment to parents who force their children to marry at an early age. The parents pay a fine of K5, 000, while the bride and bride groom each pay one goat in fines.”
However, Pazala observes that challenges remain.
“One of the challenges is that of lack of resources (in terms of fees) after the girls do well in Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education examinations. It is common knowledge that poverty is rampant in Malawi, a problem exacerbated by orphan hood. In the end, girl-children believe that marriage is the solution to their problems,” says Pazala.
This notwithstanding, police officers are appreciating the efforts of community members, with Child Protection Officer at Namphungo Police Unit, Sergeant Getson Ching’amba, acknowledging that things are changing for the better.
“In the past, lack of knowledge negatively affected the synergy between community members and officers.
“In the past, community members did not know the right procedures for reporting, say, cases of those of marriage by individuals who are below the Constitutionally-recognised age for marriage,” says Ching’amba, adding:
“On our part, we have been conducting outreach programmes in schools, churches, apart from running a Victim Support Unit,” he says.
Not that early marriages are a concern in Mulanje only. At the national level, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology putting in place mechanisms that would stem the rate of early marriages.
The ministry’s spokesperson, Rebecca Phwitiko, says, among other measures, the ministry has been encouraging girls who dropped out of school to go back to school after delivery.
“We have also been creating an environment that is conducive to learning for the girl-child,” says Phwitiko.
Civil Society Education Coalition executive director, Benedicto Kondowe, says the nation needs to put in place deliberate mechanism aimed at creating a level play ground for the girl learner.
“This includes good sanitary facilities in schools, removing barriers that hamper access to education such as long distance to schools, and providing the resources that would enable girls and boys to excel in their education,” says Kondowe.
May be it’s due to initiatives such as these that girls like Caroline have gone back to school. The challenge, however, is to keep them there.
More so when it is clear that the gulf between bringing the girl child back to school and retaining them stays unabridged.