‘I don’t want to be that girl’: hunger forces parents to marry off young girls

Eliza studies at home. She was offered for marriage at the age of 14
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

By Joseph Scott, UNICEF Malawi

Mangochi, a lakeshore district in the eastern part of Malawi, is one of the country’s top tourist hot spots. The vast expanse of mountain ranges, intersected by flat grasslands and the imposing Lake Malawi, makes for a breathtaking view. However, beneath this seeming beauty lies a tradition that has for years deprived girls the chance to pursue their dreams, as they are married off at a tender age to men with a little more money than their parents.

“In the past two years, we have seen an increase in cases where parents are offering their young girls for marriage,” says Malla Mabona, Child Protection Specialist for UNICEF Malawi. “Mostly, the decision is driven by hunger. Families are struggling to get food due to the drought that hit the country for the past two farming seasons.

“The only way out they see from this predicament is to offer their girls to richer men in their communities for marriage. This is a gross abuse of the girl’s right to education,” she says

Eliza (16) from the district was caught in this early marriage snare some two years ago.

“It all started when my father approached his friend offering to marry me to his son who was working in South Africa,” recalls Eliza who is the second oldest child in a family of seven. “The friend agreed and my father was given MK20,000 ($28 USD) and two mobile phones.”

She adds: “I was so angry when my father told me to stop school and prepare for marriage. I had never thought of getting married before. My dream was to continue with my education and become self-reliant,” she says.

Like many farming families in the area, Eliza parents had a poor harvest because of drought and erratic rains, caused by El Nino. They managed to harvest only three bags of the staple maize. Being such a big family, this only lasted for three months.

As the hunger started to bite, Eliza’s father saw a way out of the crisis by offering his daughter for marriage. However, her mother was opposed to the idea — she wanted Eliza to continue with her education.

Eliza shares stories with her grandmother at home in Mangochi
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

Forced out of school by poverty

The ensuing marital conflict between Eliza’s parents affected the children’s education.

“My father saw my mother’s refusal to have me married as defiance,” Eliza says. “To punish her, he decided not to support us in any way. Life became tougher because, in addition to the food shortages we were experiencing, we also didn’t have soap to wash clothes or to bath.

Eliza started going without things such as notebooks and pens. “It became so difficult for me to attend classes. I pulled out of school in Standard 6 to look for odd jobs around the village to help the family with some income,” she says.

Every day in the morning, she would join her mother to look for work in the surrounding villages. But it was not easy getting a job as almost all the people in the village had been affected by the drought.

When the differences between Eliza parents deepened, his father decided to leave the family. Since he had no money to refund his friend’s family, Eliza’s father decided to relocate to neighbouring Mozambique. The family have not heard from him since.

“It pains me though that I have not seen my father for the past three years,” says Eliza. “I don’t know whether he is alive or dead. Despite what he wanted to do to me, I still love him and want him back,” she says.

UNICEF’s support

Eliza’s chance to go back to school came when UNICEF in collaboration with PLAN International and Ujamaa Pamodzi introduced some reflect action circles in her village targeting girls who had dropped out of school for various reasons.

Reflect action circles is an approach where community members and learners meet to discuss issues of violence and abuse affecting children. Through the discussions, they reflect on the causes of the problem and likely results and come up with a plan on how to overcome and deal with such issues.

“Following the introduction of reflection action circles, community members have taken keen interest in the welfare of children especially girls,” says Cassim Saiti, a government social welfare officer working with PLAN and Ujamaa in the project.

In Katuli where Eliza lives, community groups have been formed that conduct door to door visits to households to alert them on child rights.

“When they come across a family where girls are not going to school or there are plans to offer them for marriage, they first advise the parents that it is a violation of their rights before they bring the issue to us for further action,” he says.

Eliza smiles as she draws water from a borehole in her village
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

Back in school

According to Cassim, the project has been a success as 28 girls have been re-admitted back to school through the reflection action circles.

And Eliza is one of them: “I was excited when I was chosen to attend the reflect circles with other girls in our village who had also dropped out of school,” she says. “This opportunity made me to reflect on my future and I made the decision to go back to school.

“I want to become a doctor,” she continues. “I feel this job will not only help me support my mother and siblings financially, but also help the sick,” says Eliza who is now back in school and in Standard 7.

“I have so many friends who come to me saying that I should get married. They tell me that they will go and live in South Africa since their husbands are there. But I am not taken by such things,” says Eliza and adds, “If I continue with my education and realize my dream of becoming a doctor, I can travel there on my own accord.”

Eliza says that during the time she was staying home from school, three men came to her home asking for her hand in marriage.

“Most of these man just impregnate the girls and lie that they will give them all the nice things in life. But the girls end up caring for children whose fathers never come back home. I don’t want to be that girl,” Eliza declares emphatically.

Elizais now back in school and catching up on her studies
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

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