It is the first day of a fresh school year. Pupils of Pende Primary School in Chikwawa District are surprised to see their seemingly ‘new’ teacher in girls’ black uniform dress.
Surprisingly this new teacher is carrying a white plastic bag, which appears to have notebooks.
She walks towards Standard seven classrooms and settles in one of the Standard seven classrooms, ready to learn.
Things become funny for the younger learners when the ‘madam’ introduces the then 28-year-old Tendai Banda as one of the new learners.
“The children laughed their lungs out. They said I was too big to be in their class. But this didn’t bother me that much. I knew what I wanted in life,” Tendai remembers.
Her decision to go back to school came in due to numerous challenges she encountered in marriage. When she lost both parents in her teens, her aunt advised her to get married. She unknowingly became a second wife.
“I was just childish and short sighted. My parents left some properties and these relations were interested in getting them. That’s why they wanted me to get married,” she says.
Things turned sour after she realized that the man was already married to another wife; but she had nowhere else to go.
The Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (2015-16), reveal that 46 percent of girls and women (like Tendai) get married before the age of 18.
A 2014 Catholic Education Commission in Malawi (Cecom) report shows that, between 2010 and 2013, more than 27,000 girls like Tendai in Malawi dropped out of primary school to get married.
“Child marriage is one of the main barriers to education for young girls in Malawi. On average, half of all girls are married by their 18th birthday and nearly a quarter are married by the age of 15.Our girls are being unfairly denied their right to a future and we must take action,” reads the report in part.
Tendaihad to cling on to the union because she could not meet her basic needs and had nowhere to go. In no time, Tendaimotheredfour children. She was, however, unhappy, oppressed and abused. The man also failed to provide for all the seven children from the two wives.
“I went through a lot. I was not going to do my children justice if I didn’t find a way out. I thought it wise to go back to school, attain education and prepare a good future for my children. In this situation, I felt the children would grow up poor and remain poor in their entire lives,” says Tendai, adding that this was enough motivation for her to return to school.
She says initially young learners mocked her. But things changed after teachers explained to them why she was back in school at that age. They warned that whoever ridicules her would face disciplinary action.
“I had a healthy relationship with the younger learners. They even helped me with my school work on topics I didn’t understand in class. I was later selected to MthumbaCommunity Day Secondary School. The situation was the same when I just joined but things changed until I completed my form four,” says Tendai who passed with 33 points on her Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations.
Her determination encouraged other women to go back to school especially now that she has been working with several Non- Governmental Organizations and earning some income.
Tendai isone of the few brave women whose dream to amend her mistake has been rekindled through community initiative.
Public Health Programme Manager of Panos Institute Southern Africa MamoletsaneKhati said looking at the social and cultural drivers, parents, traditional leaders should be able to take a proactive role in understanding child marriage as a human rights violation and understanding how they can help the girls to value education to improve their future economic opportunities instead of looking at marriage as a relief from poverty, which is also even short lived.
“As an advocacy for development organization, we believe in building the capacity of different stakeholders to advocate for improved policies and strategies towards ending child marriage. These include the media, parents, traditional leaders as well as the girls and boys themselves,” she said.
Youth Coalition for the Consolidation of Democracy (YCD) Executive Director, Francis Folley, says child marriages are a very common practice in the district and most girls end up being dumped— as was the case with Tendai, while others end up having co-wives.
“The saddest thing about this is the fact that parents or guardians of the girls are the ones perpetuating the practice. They want to benefit from Lobola and many other things the man provides to them,” he says.
Folley sayshis organization has been working in collaboration with traditional leaders, other NGOs and the police to rescue underage girls from marriages by re-enrolling them in school.
He says so far 41 underage girls have been rescued from marriages. Folley says out of the 41 girls who were rescued from child marriages, 32 were enrolled back to school, while others are just staying with their parents due to other challenges.
Another organization working on child marriages in Malawi is Girls Empowerment Network (GENET).
GENET executive director, Faith Phiri saysGirls empowerment Network has a number of programs working to combat child marriage in Malawi.
She says they have the Marriage no child’s play project and the Enabling Girls Achieve Gender Equity (ENGAGE) project and the 18+ project.
“In these programs we have several strategies that we use to prevent and rescue girls from early marriages. For instance, we use girlsclubs aged 9 to 18 years, who are trained in gender, self-esteem, advocacy, laws. Therefore equipped to resist child marriage,” she says.
Phiri also says they train boys and men as champions to support girl’s education community outreach and awareness meeting.
They also engage traditional and religious leaders to stop child marriages through bylaws and establishing parental circles to teach parents positive parenting.
Through these entire projects, GENET have managed to rescue 352 girls from early child marriages across the country who have been re-enrolled in schools.
GENET also workwith the community and chiefs in curbing out child marriages.
Phiri says they train the community on the effects of harmful traditional practices that fuel child marriage.
“We also get their support to establish bylaws in their communities that would control child marriage. We encouragechiefs not to approve marriages of girls under 18 years old in their villages and if they are found they are supposed to end those marriages and report the perpetrators to police,” she says.
However, she says there also challenges that they encounter in rescuing girls from child marriages.
For instance, she says most of the girls need psycho social support which is expensive and hard to provide.
“Another challenge is that the community structures like child protection committees, social welfare, police are not well coordinated at grassroots structures to prevent child marriages and support girl children who are affected by child marriage,” says Phiri.
Tendaisays even though she has not secured a permanent job, she is already reaping the fruits of education as she has been working with NGOs in her area.
Plan International Malawicountry director Daniel Muchena said the majority of those affected by child marriage are girls. He said the malpractice has a significant negative and complex correlation with education.
“There is need for more engagement with local authorities, parents and the girls themselves to understand girls’ rights so that when there is an infringement, the cases must be reported and perpetrators dealt with,” Muchena says.
He said Plan works to end all forms of child rights violations and injustices that affect girls disproportionately.
The organisation wants to reach out to 100 million girls globally.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :