By Naomi Kalemba, UNICEF Malawi
Father Kadzingo, 37 is a priest and youth chaplain for the Roman Catholic Dedza diocese. In the past, youth chaplains used to be older men, but now the church is appointing younger priests who can better relate to adolescents. Perhaps because of his age, Father Kadzingo is passionate about youth issues and his enthusiasm is infectious. He smiles broadly and laughs as he chats outside Ntcheu Parish Church, with a new Chichewa translation of the Bible in his hands.
Dedza diocese covers ten traditional authorities (TAs) in Dedza and Ntcheu districts. Through the leadership of Father Kadzingo and the N’zatose project under the churches’ development arm, the diocese has established 50 youth clubs that are working to end child marriages in the area.
“I grew up in rural Dedza, Mtakataka area and saw a lot of children getting married. I saw the problems that this creates, for the children themselves and their communities. Being a youth chaplain allows me to help change this practice.” says Father Kadzingo.
In collaboration with chiefs and Father Kadzingo, the youth clubs work with school authorities to identify children who have dropped out due to teenage pregnancy and child marriage. Once they identify the drop outs, they go and meet their parents with the local chief and Father Kadzingo. Their presence at these meetings is important because chiefs and religious leaders are regarded very highly in rural communities.
By going with the Father’s backing, they are often successful at withdrawing children from child marriages and sending them back to school. In 2017, seven teenage girls who fell pregnant and were married with the consent of their parents were successfully removed from marriages and returned to school after giving birth.
“Often once a girl falls pregnant, parents push them to get married regardless of how young they may be. This is done to avoid the embarrassment of having a child out of wedlock and as a way of reducing poverty,” said Father Kadzingo.
The Roman Catholic church is no longer officiating marriages of children, and the organisation’s good record keeping, which includes the ages of parishioners, allows it to enforce this policy. The remaining loophole is that people can still go to chiefs to get married. To address this, Father Kadzingo is working through the youth clubs to sensitise chiefs on the dangers of child marriage and is encouraging them come up with community norms commonly referred to as by-laws that will stop this practice.
“If chiefs persist in marrying children, the children are barred from receiving some sacrament from the church.” says Father Kadzingo.
Esnart Thamanagani, now 18, was one of the children Father Kudzingo helped return to school. She sits outside a small brick house, wearing a smart blue dress, with clothes, pots and pans drying behind her in the sun. When she was 16, she became pregnant after a sexual relationship with an older married man. In anger, her father sent her away from home and she moved in with the man as his second wife.
“When I heard about Esnart’s situation I went to meet her,” Father Kudzingo says. “I established that although she had finished secondary school that year, she was still under age and not eligible to marry. Then I met her parents and convinced them to allow her to return home.”
By the time Esnart gave birth, secondary school leaving exams results were released and she found she had failed. Father Kudzingo worked with her parents to raise school fees for Esnart to go and repeat her final year of secondary school. She will be writing exams again this year. “I am looking forward to a much brighter future for myself and my son,” Esnart says.
Esnart’s father, Felix Thamagani spent a lot of years working as a house help in Blantyre and Lilongwe to raise school fees for her daughter. “I wanted Esnart to be a teacher or nurse or work in the bank like some of the women I worked for in Blantyre,” Felix says. “Now that she is back in school, she can become whatever she puts her mind to”, he adds.
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. Additionally, the government has launched National Strategy on Ending Child Marriages which highlight the critical role of religious leaders in ending child marriages.
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 the Catholic Church to prevent 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.”
For Father Kudzingo, the mission to end child marriage continues. He spends a lot of time travelling to small churches in remote rural Ntcheu, meeting with parents and chiefs to discuss the negative effects of child marriage on children themselves and the community at large.
“I feel happy when a child marriage is dissolved because of our efforts,” he says. “I feel even happier when the child returns to school. I come from an area where a lot of people have not gone to school and I have seen first-hand the problems this creates. Education, no matter how minimal, is important.”