Malawi: Parents marrying off daughters as young as nine

Date: February 22, 2011
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The future of many girls in Malawi is in jeopardy. Poverty-stricken parents are marrying their daughters off at a tender age, robbing young girls of their right to education and exposing them to gender-based violence and HIV and AIDS in a country with one of the world’s highest prevalence rates.

In Chitipa, Mulanje, Mzimba and Karonga districts, some of the worst cultural practices persist. These are what locals call Kupimbila, Kupawila and Chithyola imvi.

Kupimbila and Kupawila involve parents arranging marriage for their young daughters without the child’s consent or knowledge. Money or cattle exchange hands between the parents and the soon-to-be husband (usually much older than the girl) and the oblivious youngster is allowed no objection to the arrangement.

Chithyola imvi is when young girls are forced to have sex with their father or grandfather. It is said this act will help boost a business venture or bring financial rewards.

According to the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) report Cultural Practices and their Impact on the Enjoyment of Human Rights, Particularly the Rights of Women and Children in Malawi, the reason why these practices persist varies depending on the region of the country.

The report notes that sometimes a “girl’s parents get into debt and as payment for the debt they offer the daughter in marriage to the creditor. The girl can be as young as 9-years-old and the man could be as old as 40-years or older. The girl in this situation ends up attaining puberty while staying with the husband.”

Another practice involves parents sending their daughter to live with a rich man in the community. The understanding is that after the young child comes of age she will hopefully then get married to the man, bringing money to her family.

During a 2010 visit to Chitipa with ActionAid International Malawi (AAIM), I witnessed some of these tragic stories myself.

Maria Banda*, then only 13, was being forced to marry a 78-year old man. Her parents had arranged the marriage but she was fighting it with the help of Thalire Women’s Forum (TWF), a grouping of women, funded by AAIM, advocating for girl-child education and women’s rights in the area.

Her future was uncertain and she was very scared.

I later found out that after the consent of the area’s senior chief, Banda was allowed to quit the arrangement and stay with TWF’s chairperson. TWF works with local chiefs to educate communities on the rights of the girl child, aware that convincing chiefs may be the key to changing harmful practices within communities.

I met another girl from the same area, 16-year-old Margaret Nkhoma*, who recounted her story about how her father had arranged a similar marriage.

“It was in 2007 when I asked my father to provide money for my school fees as I was about to start secondary school education,” she said. “He promised to borrow money from somebody because he didn’t have it then. After some time, he told me to go and collect the money from a certain man. Fortunately, my friend tipped me that my father had arranged with the man to lock me up in his house when I got there.”

These reports and others like them are not only shocking and sad; they also threaten the development of my struggling nation, and are a sharp contrast to the advancement of women’s rights in many other parts of the world.

This week the United Nations will launch UN Women, an amalgamation of all UN bodies devoted to promoting women’s rights. The UN has recognised the importance of empowering women in order to fuel economies and reduce poverty, HIV and AIDS and gender-based violence. At a local level, this might also be an opportunity to galvanise Malawians who are working towards gender equality.

Malawi is a signatory to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it has also ratified the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development: both guarantee the rights of the girl-child, including the right to education. However, it is apparent these rights are not yet being realised by many Malawian girls.

Girls who are forcibly married to older men are not allowed to question their husbands. In a country where gender equality has not yet been realised, this amounts to insubordination and is considered a disgrace to family and community.

MacBain Mkandawire, Executive Director of Youth Net and Counselling (Yoneco), a local organisation advocating for youth rights, said there are many problems associated with early marriage. One major issue is premature pregnancy, which he said is a leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 years in Malawi, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

“Premature pregnancy carries significant health risks,” he said. “Early marriage also jeopardises a girl’s right to education. In addition, married girls have few social connections, restricted control over resources and little power in their new households, where domestic violence is always common in such marriages.”

With the above cultural practices still prevalent, the dream of seeing more women empowered and taking up decision-making positions is in a peril, and with it Malawi’s dream of development and growth.

Yet there may be an unorthodox solution for this cultural quandary.

During my tour of Chitipa and Karonga, I heard of some senior chiefs who are campaigning to end these practices, hoping to see the girls in their communities instead excelling at school. Like it or not, such chiefs are still the custodians of culture in these areas, so convincing them to end these harmful practices might be the key to winning this battle.

*Names have been changed.

Daud Kayisi is a Malawian journalist and the Gender Links media intern. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, which brings you fresh views on everyday news.


0 thoughts on “Malawi: Parents marrying off daughters as young as nine”

Roselyn Makhambera says:

African governments must intervene and protect a girl child

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