By Joseph Scott, UNICEF Malawi
On a bright Sunday morning in Dedza district, Reverend Fastele Banda takes to the podium of a large church. The aisles are full of people from surrounding villages, dressed in their finest clothes. A group of gospel singers in shiny shirts get everyone singing to build their enthusiasm. Then Reverend Banda starts talking, his voice becoming more animated as he holds forth on a subject that he is passionate about: ending child marriage.
Using verses from the Bible, the Reverend outlines ‘God’s master plan for marriage’, which involves waiting until both partners are ready, and the problems caused by child marriage. His congregation starts nodding their agreement.
“Let’s hear the marriage story about Jacob,” he says. “He worked for seven years to marry Leah but instead he was offered Rachel, Leah’s elder sister. This was so because Leah was a younger sister and wasn’t ready and mature for marriage. But when Jacob insisted on Leah, he was told to work for another seven years until she was ready.
“Therefore, our duty is to implement God’s plan not to rush things,” he adds. “Let’s bless the name of God by implementing His master plan for marriage.”
Finding his calling
It was 14 years ago that Fastele decided to become a priest. Despite a lukewarm response from his parents, he went ahead to enroll for the priesthood with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) at Nkhoma. He graduated in 2006.
“They thought since I would be a priest, I would come begging for help,” Fastele says. “But I don’t have any regrets. This is what God called me to do.
Reverend Banda is now serving in Mtakataka, about 70 km from Dedza town. The area has very high rates of child marriage, driving him to take action.
“When I was posted to this area last year, I found there were several marriages already registered for officiation,” he says. “One of the weddings involved a boy who was 19 and a girl who was 17. I asked them to sign a commitment but neither could write. They asked to give thumb prints instead.”
This became a matter of concern for Fastele. He saw a bleak future ahead for the country and church, if young people prioritized marriage over education. An idea came to him. He consulted with the church elders and resolved to start pre-marriage counselling sessions. These are meant to enlighten couples planning to wed on the realities of marriage.
“In my counselling sessions, I emphasize age. This is very important as it determines what a person can achieve if they plan and live a full life,” Fastele says. “Since most people in this area don’t have birth certificates, I make rough calculations based on years spent in primary school. I assume that they will go to secondary school and college and give them about two years thereafter to prepare themselves for marriage.”
Using this formula, Fastele calculates the appropriate age for marriage as at least 24. He says it doesn’t always work, as some young people rush to get married sooner for the wrong reasons. Between the ages of 18 and 24, he advises couples to wait, but does not prevent the marriage. However, for anyone under the age of 18, he tells them that CCAP will not officiate their wedding.
“For example, we registered a marriage and then on investigation found out that both the boy and girl were under 18. We cancelled the wedding,” he says. “But our work doesn’t end there. We follow up with the couple and counsel them. If we don’t do that, there are high chances that they will elope.”
Advocating for change
UNICEF is working to bring an end to child marriage throughout Malawi. According to the Demographic and Health Survey 2015, almost one in two girls in Malawi (47 per cent) were married before the age of 18. In early 2017, a coalition of UN agencies and NGOs was instrumental in supporting the Government to change the Constitution to raise the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18 years of age, for both girls and boys.
Since then, UNICEF’s work has focused on ensuring that this political change is implemented on the ground. This includes working with religious groups like CCAP to identify and annul child marriages, and with local leaders and communities to equip girls and boys with knowledge and skills to reduce the risk of child marriage.
“Child marriage is a violation of children’s rights,” UNICEF Malawi Chief of Child Protection Afrooz Kaviani Johnson says. “It puts girls at greater risk of domestic violence and potential life-threatening health consequences of early pregnancy. They often drop out of school, limiting their education and career prospects.”
“There are already many champions in Malawi, working in their communities to end this damaging practice,” she continues. “We want to amplify their voices so that they can be an inspiration to others.”
Long term approach
Changing hearts and minds takes time. Reverend Banda’s approach to marriage has not been well received by everyone in the communities he serves. Some underage couples, or their families, have resorted to falsifying their ages when registering with the church for marriage.
“They can’t beat the system because we use filters when registering them for officiation,” Fastele explains. “As a church, we give them letters when they become members. These have dates of births and are supposed to be presented during wedding registration. That’s when we get those who try to wed before reaching the legal age of 18.”
There is also a danger of retaliation from families angered by the nullification of a marriage. There have been verbal threats from people who were not happy with the decision.
“We have a chief in the area who has been receiving threats because of his work on ending child marriage,” Fastele says. “But for me, this is the Lord’s work. I will continue guiding the young to make the right decisions. If I stop because of threats, it means I am not building a good foundation for the church or country.”
As the congregation file out of Reverend Banda’s church into the bright midday sunshine, and gather in small groups in the shade of trees, chatting and socializing, it is not hard to find people who have been affected by his message.
Gremener Kagoli, 65, said she had been “deeply touched” by the sermon. “I advise my fellow parents to take a leading role in advising our children to avoid premature marriages,” she says. “They should wait and prepare themselves to enter marriage when they are in their 20s. The teenagers’ marriages are not lasting long, and the girls are facing a lot of problems during delivery because their bodies are immature.”
Although the work continues, it is clear that Fastele, and other champions like him fighting to end child marriage, are already making an impact in the communities they serve.
This story first appeared in the Sunday Times.