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Conflicting policies hinder fight against child marriages

Written by  Tionge Ndau
Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Mary Navicha says Government is committed - Pic by Abel Ikiloni Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Mary Navicha says Government is committed - Pic by Abel Ikiloni

Blantyre, October 25, 2019: The whole Nimbire Village in Traditional Authority (TA) Mlomba in Machinga woke up that morning to the sad news that Amidu Frank, 19, had eloped with Khadija Yusufu, 13, (not her real name) to Blantyre.

Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare team in Machinga reported the matter to TA Mlomba who, together with Chief Chibondo, referred the case to Machinga Police Station.

“This happened barely a few days after our efforts to withdraw the girl from the marriage, which had the blessing of the girl’s mother Abiti Taulo, proved futile,” says Annie Gabriel, Machinga Child Protection Officer.

Gabriel says the incident tore the family apart as the girl’s father, Frank Sibu, frowned at the relationship while the mother approved it.

“I visited the parents on the need for them to talk sense to their child to withdraw from the marriage and continue with her studies.
“However, the mother verbally harassed me. I then proceeded to TA Mlomba and Chief Chibondo to intervene. There was no police action for some weeks after the matter was reported,” Gabriel explains.

It was this indecisiveness on the part of the police that gave the two an opportunity to strategise and leave the village for Blantyre City.
Elsewhere, Martin Tembo and his wife Eliteke Kanyasko of Efelanja Village in TA Mthwalo in Mzimba were struggling with a similar case.

Their 13-year-old daughter, Ireen (not real name), did not sleep in their house the previous night and was nowhere to be seen throughout the day.

A rigorous search for her sent them to utter paralysis as the discovery was too much to bear. Their little girl had married a man aged 20 in a neighbouring village of Chisangano in the two days she went missing.

They immediately reported the matter to Ekwendeni Police Unit.

The following day, police went to Chisangano Village and arrested the minor, Ireen and her husband Timoteo Zgambo.

They were only released after spending a night in the cooler and were told to part ways since the girl was too young for marriage.  

Unfortunately, the decision was a little too late because lreen had been indulging in sexual activities with Timoteo and was pregnant already. This discovery disturbed Ireen’s parents.

Nevertheless, the quest to have Ireen get educated compelled them not to send her into marriage threatening that any plans to marry the minor would attract the police wrath.

“In spite of all this, Timoteo went ahead and married our daughter. Ireen went straight to Timoteo’s house after being released from police custody.

“We don’t know how to go about the whole issue. As I’m talking to you now, my daughter is still with Timoteo, still married and expecting a child at that tender age,” Tembo narrates.

“I cry for my child because she is too young for marriage responsibilities, let alone pangs of pregnancy,” she says.

The two stories though different but share misfortunes and implications. This phenomenon undermines the global fight against girl child marriages.

Although the amendment of the laws in 2017 to push the marriage age to 18 was lauded as a significant milestone, child marriages persist in the country.

It is not surprising, therefore, that statistics on child marriages by World Vision Malawi (WVM) released in August, 2019 paint a gloomy picture.

At least 42 per cent of young girls in Malawi get married before reaching their 18th birthday annually; while the new Marriage Law is yet to be enforced.

All this is happening when Malawi is among 20 African countries which committed to end girl child marriages by 2020 under UN Ministerial Commitment on Comprehensive Sexuality, Education and Sexual Reproductive Health Services for Adolescents.

Paramount Chief Kyungu of Karonga says there are no two ways to go about the problem. He says the fight against child marriages can be won if policies are reviewed and practiced.

“I have been championing against child marriages for four years now and I have arrived at a conclusion that much needs to be done.
“Government and all its partners need to engage an extra gear in changing people’s mindset on child marriages,” Kyungu says.

TA Mlomba, however, blames the Malawi Police Service (MPS) for treating the problem of child marriages with kid gloves.

“The police are not helping us at all. Each time we report such cases to them, they ignore us. This renders our efforts to address the problem, futile,” Mlomba says.

She also blames the elopement of Yusufu to police’s indecision.

“Government needs to devise guiding policies on how the police and courts should handle cases of child marriages. They should know that such cases require swift action,” Mlomba says.

Paramount Chief Gomani V of Ntcheu, who is WVM Ambassador for ending child marriages, appeals to the police not to grant bail to perpetrators of child marriages.

During one of WVM’s functions on child marriages in Ntcheu, Gomani told the media that chiefs need to complement the police in fighting against child marriages.

“We need to develop a policy that should dethrone all chiefs that overlook young girls as they get married willy-nilly,” he said.  

However, National Police Public Relations Officer (PRO) James Kadadzera pushes the blame to the courts for granting bail to perpetrators of child marriages.

“As police, we do not give bail to anyone suspected of defiling a minor. We treat child marriages as defilement such that no bail can be granted.

“If the country sees that we are not winning this fight; let us hold hands to revisit the policies and avoid the blame-game,” Kadadzera says.

On his part, Beautify Malawi Trust Chairperson Sunduzwayo Jere refuses to place the blame on the police; instead, he faults the policies.

“Our policies on child marriages are weak; hence, the need for the country to re-energise and come up with sound policies so that child marriages in the country should be dealt with decisively,” Madise says.

TA Kachindamoto of Dedza, who is also a champion for girl-child education, supports the idea of strengthening the laws.

Kachindamoto cites her community which formulated strong by-laws on child marriages which, she says, have helped save her community from the vice.

In 2018, United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) Malawi Child Marriage Fact Sheet hinted that policies need be articulated in line with the guiding framework against child marriages so that all partners adjust their roles as well.

“We have, in collaboration with PLAN International and Ujamaa Pamodzi, introduced some Reflect Action Circles in various villages targeting girls that dropped out of school for various reasons so that they are counseled and return to school,” the fact sheet reads in part.

It says the action circles have been very successful considering that more than 28 girls have gone back to school with some withdrawn from early marriages.

Girls not Brides Malawi says on its official website that Malawi needs to work towards eliminating child, early and forced marriages by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).

To this effect, Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Mary Navicha, says government will remain committed to ensure that Malawi attains the 2030 SDG goal.

“Government will do everything to protect all children to ensure their survival, growth and development into full potential,” Navicha says.