By Lulutani Tembo, UNICEF Malawi
Its thirteen degrees celsius in the commercial capital city of Blantyre. Winter is taking its toll on the city and the hills are covered in fog. Yet the streets still are filled with people moving about, trying to make money to make ends meet. In the north-east of the city lies Ndirande township mosque. Muslims in the area put their business on hold for midday Friday prayers. Sheikh Ahmad Chienda begins Friday prayers by speaking about child marriage. Dressed in a Sheikh’s robe, he confidently addresses the congregation at the Ndirande mosque.
“In Islam, looking after a girl starts with the father. If the father dies, the siblings are meant to look after the girl. They are expected to educate her, protect her and offer her full support,” preaches Sheikh Chienda.
The Sheikh goes onto to speak about the effects of child marriage, which is common in Malawi. “Girls who get married at a young age have difficulties giving birth, which affects their health. This is a major problem that we’re creating in our society and we have to overcome it”, he utters. “Parents should also stop forcing their children to get married when they are still young”.
In Malawi, a recent change to the constitution outlawed marriage to a child under 18 years old, but extreme poverty continues to expose girls to the possibility of being married as their parents struggle to support their children. Child brides are often exchanged for livestock or money.
Young girls gathered at Ndirande Mosque were inspired by the Sheikh’s sermon and are adamant that gaining an education is the only way to stop early marriage. “We always feel that education is for boys only and feel discouraged, and as a result, many girls drop out of school and decide to get married.”, says seventeen-year-old Laisa Kazembe. “I am encouraging my fellow girls to go to school and be educated. Education is the key to a brighter future.”
UNICEF’s work on ending child marriage
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 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.
UNICEF Malawi’s Chief of Child Protection Afrooz Kaviani Johnson says every child has the right to be protected from child marriage and their education. “Ending child marriage will help break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, by allowing girls and women to participate more fully in society,” he says. “We want to continue to work closely with religious and traditional leaders to end child marriage so that every child in Malawi can be educated, empowered and allowed to reach their full potential.”
Actions against child marriage in the Muslim Community
The Muslim community holds regular gatherings with young people to help raise awareness about the issue of child marriage. Sheikh Chienda says, “When we bring young people together at youth camps, we try to tell them to focus on education.”
Sheikh Chienda explains traditionally Muslim women weren’t interested in education mostly because there weren’t many Muslim schools. But he says the education of girls now happening is making it easier to end child marriage.
“Now there are many Muslim schools in districts like Mulanje, Mangochi, and Balaka for boys and girls. These schools are helping to curb problems of child marriage because many girls are staying in school and some even proceed to university.”