Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Rescuing girls – and sometimes boys as well

Yesterday was a good day. I opened my copy of The Nation to read that the female Chief of Dedza, Inkosi Kachindamoto, had taken drastic action to save 330 children of both sexes from underage marriage. She had ‘terminated’ their marriages and sent them back to their respective schools, both primary and secondary. Of the 330, 175 were ‘girl-wives’ and, to my surprise, 155 were ‘boy-fathers’.

Marriage before the age of 18 is now ostensibly illegal in Malawi, following the passing of the Family, Divorce and Family Relations Bill a couple of months ago. This may be one of the first instances of the law actually being acted on. One problem is that the Law is in conflict with the Constitution, which allows marriage with parental consent between ages 15 and 18, and simply 'discourages' marriage below 15.

What makes such situations tricky is that usually, as in three quarters of the Dedza marriages, the parents have given their consent. Parents fall for various incentives.

Firstly, the bride price can be quite substantial, particularly if your family is poor. The paying of a bride price by the husband’s family is standard practice across many parts of Africa, even among the moneyed and professional classes.

Secondly, the rate of sexual abuse, rape and resultant pregnancies is so high among girls who have reached puberty (we’re talking in the 50-60% range here), that parents often resolve a bad situation by making it worse. They insist that the male perpetrator makes amends by marrying the girl he has molested as she is now ‘damaged goods’. Imagine being that girl! One can guess that quite a number of the ‘boy-fathers’ mentioned above fell into that category. In Britain, ‘shot gun’ marriages went out in the 1970s, following the introduction of effective birth control. Not here, however.

The Dedza Chief dealt with the situation by suspending four village headmen as a lesson to others. She stated that no village head or clergyman should marry a couple unless they have first checked the birth certificate. This expectation can be quite challenging given that it is not uncommon for births to go unregistered. Still, killing two birds with one stone is quite a good idea. After all, if no one knows you have been born, not only will no one know if you have been illegally married, they will also not know if you have died, let alone what you died of. Less dramatically, but almost equally serious, they also won’t know if you should be at school. You won’t receive any vaccinations either.

What made yesterday’s paper even more remarkable was that there on the same pages were some other encouraging stories about similar issues concerning girls.

In the Nkhata Bay area, down by the Lake, a project called GEWE (Gender Equality and Women Empowerment) is run by the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), one of the main churches in Malawi. GEWE rescued 300 children from marriages and returned them to school. Early marriages have been increasing in the area, a sign of poverty. Selling off your girls brings in money to support the rest of the family.

Also in the Nkhata area and in response to the rise in child-marriages, 35 religious groups have collaborated to ban the blessing of marriages under the age of 21.

Apparently, for every 100 girls in the area under the age of 18, 38 get married. In actual fact, the real figures are probably far higher. Recently it was announced that 94 girls had given birth in Chintheche Rural Hospital since the beginning of the year. No doubt others gave birth in the village and went unrecorded.

Such teenage births are risky. Malnourished girls may not have the energy to sustain a lengthy delivery. Levels of both neonatal and maternal deaths are high. Damage to the mother such as tearing or fistulas can affect her for the rest of her life, often making her incontinent or suffering continuing pain. Her marriage may break down as a result when her husband gets a replacement wife. Children may be born brain damaged or with other serious disabilities.

One of the strands in the UK’s support for Malawi is a programme called ‘Keeping Girls in School’ (KGIS). I hope you are pleased that that is where some of your taxes are going. Given the continuing corruption within Malawi’s government and the destructive impact of the Cashgate scandal, where millions of pounds of government money went missing, the UK, like other EU countries and the USA, now refuses to hand money directly to the government. Instead DfID channels its support (to be £72 million in 2015-2016) through respected NGOs. So much of the Global Fund money which supports programmes for malaria and HIV/AIDS goes to World Vision and other big health organisations. Some of the KGIS money is channeled through Link Community Development, the organisation I work for.

Still, it will take time for the firm action of people like the Dedza Chief to have an impact. It was reassuring to see that, also in Dedza, a man has just been sentenced to 19 years imprisonment with hard labour for ‘defiling’ (raping, let’s call it what it is) girls of 12 and 13. He offered them pencils and notebooks for school. How sad! Needless to say, the school support did not materialise. For once, the parents actually reported the incident to the police, instead of covering up and making financial gain from it.

Still, poverty is behind many of the stories one comes across.

This time last year I visited a primary school in which the Standard 5 teacher predicted that 15 girls in her class would drop out before Standard 6. With the encouragement of their parents they were attending all night parties by the Lake organised by mature businessmen from Lilongwe, the capital. Why would any parent even countenance such an arrangement? Money, of course. The girls were paid 75 kwacha per night, about 10p.

Again, from yesterday’s newspaper, was the story of how internally displaced families living in camps were starving. They are victims of the floods earlier this year,  which affected 15 out of Malawi’s 28 districts. Harvests are down by about 40%, maize is being distributed in the Dedza area, though not in the town itself which was not affected. The government is apparently buying maize from Zambia and Tanzania. In the IDP camps in Nsanje, the inhabitants were so hungry they had been reduced to eating water lilies. Hardly surprising, then, that many of the girls and young women had been driven to prostitution.

So, it’s two steps forward and one step back, as is often the case. Still, it was good to be able to read something cheerful for a change.

NB. This is the project description for DfID's programme for Keeping Girls in School

The Keeping Girls in School programme supports a series of interventions, including women teachers and teaching assistants, bursaries and cash transfers for girls education, the provision of girls’ sanitation facilities, and action to tackle the cultural and social causes of dropout and violence against girls in schools.

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