School closure exposing girls to child marriage

School closure exposing girls to child marriage


Date: July 8, 2020
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By Charles Pensulo,

Blantyre, 6 July: Mary Phiri was due to write her final primary school examination earlier this year. She was, however, surprised when her teachers told them that the school calendar was shifted before the school closing.

The young girl says although they were told Covid-19 was the reason school was closing she is yet to understand how the disease is transmitted or how best she can protect herself.

“Life is hard now since I have to help with household chores all day long. When the school was open, I was only assisting my parents with fetching firewood, drawing water and cooking when we knock off. Even then, I was being given some time to study because they could understand,” said Phiri who lives in Traditional Authority Chikumbu, in Mulanje district with her parents and two younger siblings.

To curb the spread of the COVID-19 Malawi closed schools last March after the country registered its first cases of virus. A special committee instituted by government exploring possibilities of resuming classes on 13 July but recent reports note that the schools will not re-open in the country on July 13, 2020 as earlier planned and communicated.

But both the school and local government authorities believe the closure has had negative effects, not least because some the girl children have been married off or have been impregnated.

For students like Mary, their classes will be short of some students more especially girls. According to Henderson Nazombe, a standard eight teacher at Ntepuwa Primary School in Mulanje, four of his students have been married off already.  He has also heard rumours that ten other students are either married or pregnant.

According to Nazombe, students in the rural areas drop out after leaving primary school, but the closure of schools and lack of things to keep the learners busy has worsened the situation.

Although child marriage is illegal, about 46%  of girls in Malawi are married before their eighteenth birthday and 9 percent before they turn 15, according to the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF. There are several organisations and campaigns fighting for girls to remain in school, but the pandemic is likely to affect many of these efforts.

According to experts at Plan International and UNESCO, COVID-19 forced school closures in 185 countries, has the potential for increased drop-out rates which will ‘disproportionately affect adolescent girls, further entrench gender gaps in education and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and early and forced marriage’.

“While many girls will continue with their education once the school gates reopen, others will never return to school. Education responses must prioritise the needs of adolescent girls’ at the risk of reversing 20 years of gains made for girls’ education,” writes Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, and Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, Chief Executive Officer, Plan International.

According to Nazombe, most learners in the area get married because of culture and lack of motivation but the closure of schools now has worsened.

“Most young people are married off just after writing their end of primary examination and now that schools have closed, they have just taken advantage. Maybe there should have had something to keep them busy,” said Nazombe, whose youngest students are 13.

“In my school, there haven’t been any initiatives to help or engage the students during the closure. It might be too late but charities and government need to hold awareness campaigns and instill   hope in the students. Some of them think that it has closed forever,” he said adding that even some boy-students are also marrying.

He ruled out an option of online teaching, or using radio lessons to reach the students as an option saying that most of the families are too poor to afford and maintain a radio receiver. Moreover, some parents are not literate to take the learners through the lessons, he said.

Maggie Kathewera Banda, Director for Women Legal Resource Centre (WOLREC), a local charity, has received reports of the increase of pregnancies and child marriages across the country after the schools were closed in March this year. She however said there has also been an increase in gender based violence targeting young girls.

“You find that some girls who were in boarding schools were protected from would-be-perpetrators but since they are now confined they have been vulnerable,” she said adding: “And on the economic side, you find that most families that were doing business have lost income and because of that they can’t cater for their families and this is forcing some girls to get into relationships to get support.”

Although her organisation is striving to get help and support the girls while schools are closed, the fact that some donors also depend on funding from public sectors in their respective countries means most of them are not forthcoming as countries have redirected resources in fighting the same pandemic.

Stephano Akuzike Joseth, Blantyre District Social Welfare Officer said apart from child marriages and pregnancies, young people have adopted some bad habits including gambling and patronising video shows, whose content of the movies may not befit their age.

“We’re seeing an increase in cases of child marriages, defilement and pregnancies. We get reports on monthly basis and we’re able to measure through our Child Protection Case Management. Starting From March this year, we have seen a significant rise of these cases which can be attributed to closure of schools due to Covid-19,” Joseph said.

His office is, however, conducting awareness campaigns through child protection workers and they are trying to reach out to community leaders who, he said, play a significant role in protecting the children.

“I think most of the awareness that we’ve had was to do with corona virus and social distancing but we also need to look at how the community can protect children in this atmosphere and that’s where our focus is right now.”

Charles Pensulo, is a journalist from Malawi. This story is part of the GL News Service Gender and COVID-19 series.


One thought on “School closure exposing girls to child marriage”

Stephano Akuzike Joseph says:

Good article

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