By Naomi Kalemba, UNICEF Malawi
Traditional Authority (TA) Bwananyambi is the Head Chief for Chowe, a large area of Mangochi District, covering 33 villages. She sits outside her house, which together with a brick mosque, sits in a dramatic location beneath a craggy mountain. She wears her ceremonial robes and holds a carved wooden walking stick, which she uses due to poor health. Standing beside her with a broad smile is 18-year-old Edna, a girl she has saved from child marriage.
Chief Bwananyambi is a champion for adolescent girls who has ended more than 30 child marriages over the last 12 months, largely through the drafting and enforcing of local by-laws or decrees.
In 2017, the Constitution of Malawi was changed to raise the minimum age for marriage, for both girls and boys, to 18 years. However, implementation of this standard at the community level is very patchy, with a few TAs like Bwananyambi setting an example of how to do it at village level.
The decrees that were used to end Edna’s marriage were developed with the support of Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) and the Mangochi District Social Welfare Office, with support from UNICEF. Chiefs were trained on how to develop and enforce the child marriage by-laws set as part of the overall child protection bylaws in the district. The draft by-laws were then reviewed by the District Council and a lawyer to make sure that they are in line with the revised Constitution.
“To an outsider, the by-laws might look straightforward and easy to enforce. But enforcing them against deep rooted traditions is very tricky and requires a lot of sensitivity on the part of the enforcer,” says TA Bwananyambi. “You need to counsel the parents in order to convince them that not all our cultural practices are beneficial and need to be changed.”
An important innovation that TA Bwananyambi has introduced is fining parents and village headmen who are caught engaging in child marriage, and using this money to send girls rescued from marriage back to school. Often, girls are married if they fall pregnant as a solution to poverty, and sending them back to school ensures they have a viable alternative future.
Chief Bwananyambi proudly shows the list of children she is supporting through school, and the meticulous book keeping that shows the money collected is well spent. So far, they have raised over 200,000 kwacha (US$273) from such fines and chiefs’ monthly contributions.
“This money goes into the Chief Bwananyambi School Fund which is currently paying school fees for over 25 girls and boys in secondary schools and upkeep allowances for one student at Mzuzu University.” she says. “I am very proud of all the children we are returning to school.”
When Edna was only 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 formalize 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 Mom 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.
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. The three of them tried again to convince the mother to let Edna come back home, but she would not budge.
“I wanted Edna to get married because I was not ready to start taking care of an additional child,” Enifa recalls. “We struggle to survive as it is. My husband does not work but has two wives and 15 children. Any additional mouth to feed can turn things from bad to worse.”
Having failed to resolve the issue, Mkumbira took the case to TA Bwananyambi. 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 (US$7) fine, or let the marriage continue but pay a hefty penalty of 40, 000 Kwacha (US$54), as prescribed by the local decrees.
Since the family could not find the additional 35,000 Kwacha (US$47) 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 Bwananyambi 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.”
Turning sad for a moment, the usually cheerful teenager reflects on the problems she caused her family. “I deeply regret what I did,” she says. “I caused my parents a lot of trouble when I was pregnant. They quarreled a lot.”
Soon after her son was born, Edna got sick and was re-admitted to hospital, where she was given two pints of blood and seven drips to clear an infection related to the birth. “My parents had to pay 27,000 Kwacha (US$36) in hospitals fees,” she continues. “At one point during the admission, I saw my dad crying. He thought I was going to die. I do not want to put them through something like that again.”
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.
Since 2017, UNICEF’s work has focused on ensuring that the Constitutional change is translated into practice. This includes working with religious groups to identify and annul child marriages, and with traditional 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 like TA Bwananyambi 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.”
As Malawi continues to shift deeply entrenched harmful practices such as child marriage, chiefs like Bwananyambi are fearlessly leading their communities in the process of finding a common ground between the old and new. For girls like Edna, this gives them a second chance at life. Instead of being trapped at home with a small baby and no education and, she now has every chance of realising her dream of becoming a nurse and breaking the cycle of poverty for her young child.