CHIRADZULU (Didem Tali, Irish Times) – It’s the Fathers and Daughters’ “chat day” at a village in the Chiradzulu district of southern Malawi, initiated by grassroots activists and village authorities to bridge the communication gap between girls and their fathers.
“I promise not to marry my daughter off, and I will support her dreams of becoming a teacher as much as I can,” says the father of a teenage girl, holding his daughter’s hand.
He then signs a piece of paper and hands it to village authorities, to ensure he is kept accountable for his promise.
Cheered and applauded by village members gathered under a majestic baobab tree, dozens of fathers follow the same ritual and publicly pledge to not marry their daughters off.
Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. Girls Not Brides, an organisation campaigning worldwide to end child marriage, says one of every two girls in Malawi will be married by the time they are 18.
However, tides have recently been turning for Malawian girls. After immense pressure from activists and communities, Malawi’s president Peter Mutharika recently signed a Bill that raised the minimum age of legal marriage from 15 to 18, thus banning child marriage.
The new legislation marked just the latest stage in the struggle to end child marriage in Malawi. In fact, some communities have for some time been systematically tackling the issue and creating different local solutions.
According to Faith Phiri, director of Girls’ Empowerment Network, a grassroots organisation operating in Malawi, the problem of child marriage is rooted in “harmful traditional practices” – which the new marriage Bill isn’t necessarily going to eradicate.
“Ending child marriage requires community participation and changes in the attitude,” she says. “These changes in attitude don’t happen overnight . . . We need the community members to genuinely understand why girls shouldn’t get married. For that, we need to generate dialogue and get everyone talking.”
Recent changes in Chiradzulu district illustrate Phiri’s point.
“Chiradzulu is not a place where a girl looks forward to becoming a teenager,” says Memory Banda, an 18-year-old who refused to get married as a child.
She recalls how her younger sister had her first menstruation and then was taken to an “initiation camp”, a traditional rite of passage into adulthood.
“Initiation camps are ceremonies designed to teach girls about their wifely duties once they start to menstruate.
“My sister, who is two years younger than me, was taken to one of them. She was forced into sex by an older man, who wanted to teach her how to sexually please men.
“She then got pregnant, dropped out of school, and married this man at the age of 11. I’ve seen the same thing happening to a lot of other girls.”
Although initiation camps are still known to be in existence in parts of Malawi, more and more communities are ceasing to observe this tradition. Perhaps more importantly, more and more girls find the courage to say no to such practises.
“Most girls go to initiation camps or get into marriages at young ages, because they don’t know their rights.
“Also, if you reject tradition, you are considered childish and immature. You get bullied. It’s not easy for such a young girl to rebel against the tradition,” says Banda.
Banda herself fiercely resisted an attempt to take her to an initiation camp, then created a support group in her village to mobilise other girls to stay at school and find the courage to say no to initiation camps or child marriages.
Now a university student majoring in journalism, she mentors many girls in her community to make sure what happened to her sister “doesn’t happen to more girls”.
However, the game changer for ending child marriage in individual communities is when activists such as Banda and the grassroots network inspire the traditional leaders to join their cause.
In Malawi, where hereditary roles of traditional local leaderships dominate local governance, village and district chiefs have tremendous power over their community affairs.
Decisions regarding marriage and divorce traditionally have to be approved by local authorities, thus giving village chiefs an exclusive power to end child marriages in their communities.
Ida Alli, senior chief of Chiradzulu, says she now makes it as hard as possible for people to marry their daughters off.
Since she has the power to enforce bylaws that people in her community have to follow, she made the minimum age of marriage 22 in her villages.
“If I hear the rumours that someone might be interested in marrying their daughters’ off, I personally go to their home, invite the male’s side of the family too and talk to both of the families,” Allie says.
“We talk for hours, and usually for days. I warn them about the dangers of marrying young and the importance of education.”
She was declared a champion of women’s empowerment by the previous president of Malawi, Joyce Banda.
One girl at a time
Chiradzulu now has a committee of community volunteers who come together to discuss solutions to various problems including child marriage and girls’ rights. Although the issue of child marriage in Malawi is a multifaceted one, some communities are beginning to address it, one girl at a time.
With her method of direct intervention through dialogue and the help of a committee of volunteers, Alli has convinced dozens of families to not marry off their daughters early and keep them at school instead.
“Marriage? No worries with that. Every girl can get married at some point. We have enough decent boys and they are not going anywhere,” she says.
“But education? We have to sort that one first.”
This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund