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The day that gives girl child a voice

Written by  Vincent Khonje
Demanding Protection for the girl child: School children in Kasungu march for their rights - Pic by Vincent Khonje Demanding Protection for the girl child: School children in Kasungu march for their rights - Pic by Vincent Khonje

Kasungu, October 18, 2018: It is Thursday 11th October 2018, an ordinary day for everyone else but not for school children in the northern part of Kasungu.

The joy on their faces signifies the hope for a bright future that they anticipate. But the messages on the placards portray a bad world they are in.

They are marching, rejoicing and dancing while hoisting placards that scream out different messages to the world.

Drawn from different schools, the girls are marching to commemorate the International Day of the Girl Child (IDGC) set aside by the UN in 2011 to highlight and address the needs and challenges of a girl child.

Ironically, as they march in jubilation on M1 road across Nkhamenya Trading Centre, the messages they carried on their placards indicate that all is not rosy.

Among the excited young girls is Dalitso Mondoma, 17, who gives an account of problems her fellow girls are facing.

“Girls face many problems such as lack of school fees, sexual abuses, defilement and forced marriage,” says Dalitso, a Form Four student at Kanjaluni Community Day Secondary School (CDSS).

“These problems make us not to continue with our education,” she adds.

Dalitso explains that the excitement during the march does not mean that the girls are amused with the situation around them.

“It [excitement] is because the IDGC has accorded us a platform to send a strong message to leaders, guardians, parents, duty bearers and the whole world at large that we need to be protected,” she says.

“This is a day for us to voice out our challenges. Our message is that we have a future; so, please, protect us and let us finish our education,” says Cleverness Chitekwere, also a student at Kanjaluni CDSS.

The UN theme for this year is ‘With Her: A skilled girl force’.

It is a reflection of efforts to bring together partners and stakeholders to advocate for, and draw attention and investments to the most pressing needs and opportunities for girls to attain skills for employability.

However, for school children in Kasungu north, their commemoration is supported by child focused organisation, Plan Malawi, under a theme ‘Say no to child marriage, say yes to education’.

The aim is to empower a girl child to withstand inequalities she faces in her everyday life.

Plan Malawi’s goal on IDGC is to end all forms of child rights violations and injustices that girls face and the organisation wants to reach out to 100 million girls, globally.

From the messages carried in the placards, what strikes most is the big problem of sexual exploitation and inequalities in education, gender and health.

The consequences of such abuses are that girls quit education due to early pregnancies and child marriages.

Poverty forces some parents to marry off their daughters while some girls opt for marriage whenever they realise that they are not regarded as important as boys in families and society as a whole.

Is the early marriage battle being won?

Senior Chief Kaluluma believes that in communities where messages on child rights have been spread, there is already some improvement in that cases of early marriages have stopped.

“The most important thing is that the messages should go straight to communities. But current situation is that most awareness meetings are held with chiefs only.

“Some go back and spread the messages while others don’t,” Kaluluma says.

Although there are forces in some communities that lead to children being victims of early marriage, government put in place measures to protect the children.

Recently, there was review of the legal framework on marriage age aimed at stopping children from getting married before the age of 18.

However, implementation of the Marriage Act has left a lot to be desired as some stakeholders such as communities, themselves, tend to hide institution of child marriages.

Apart from the preventive laws, there are government structures from district level down to the community level. Despite a few glitches, Kasungu District Social Welfare Officer John Washali feels there is something being done.

Washali says there is Child Protection Committee which comprises all key sectors at council level and that similar committees are also at community level.

“The committees are doing well to protect children rights,” he says.

But Washali concurs with Senior Chief Kaluluma that it is only in areas where different stakeholders have spread child protection messages that things have changed.

“Mostly, where there are organizations working on child protection, awareness has been done very well and people have responded positively.

“But where there are no such organizations, there are problems,” he says.

Washali adds that there is also the issue of capacity among the child protection committees in some communities.

“Most child protection officers have not undergone training to build their capacity. They may not be able to apply the laws properly,” he says.

Plan Malawi Country Director Daniel Muchena hails the efforts in protection of girls’ rights in Malawi.

However, Muchena agrees that understanding of the laws is quite a problem among most communities.

“There is need for more engagement with local authorities, parents and the girls themselves to understand girls’ rights so that when there is an infringement, the cases must be reported and perpetrators dealt with,” Muchena says.

To this end, the girl child day commemoration has given an opportunity to the girls to explain to the world challenges that hinder them to grow to their potential.

It is up to parents, leaders and duty bearers to listen to the girls’ concerns and make the world a better place for girls like Dalitso and Cleverness to thrive.

Meanwhile, Malawi is set to hold national commemoration of the day on October 20 at Enukwenu in Mzimba District, one of the areas with the highest number of child marriages.

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