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In Malawi, NGOs and Government Join Forces to End Forced Marriage

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Lameck Masina

In Malawi, NGOs and the government are working together to end forced marriages and other traditional practices that violate the rights of girls. The effort follows reports that more and more girls are being forced into marriage with older men.

One of the practices under scrutiny is kupimbira, a tradition in northern Malawi where parents arrange for their young daughters to marry older men without the girls’ consent. In return, the new husbands pay the parents a dowry or forgive a debt. Usually, this is done when the girl is still a child. Supporters say it allows parents to choose the best husbands for their daughters.

Thirteen-year-old Belita Simpokolwe was once forced to marry an old man: “My stepfather ordered me to quit school and get married to a 77-year-old man. He said I was too old for grade four. But I refused, and I told him that I want to continue with my education.

“Soon after that, my stepfather sent me to the market without money. Instead, he [told] me to collect some money from a certain gentleman ranging from $5 to $10, some of which I would use to buy some food, and return the change to him.”

Simpokolwe says she didn’t suspect anything unusual, because she thought the man was related to her stepfather.

But to her surprise, she says, three weeks later the man came to her house with a hoe – used sometimes in the north as a symbol of a dowry. If a woman agrees to take it, she has accepted his proposal.

“I was shocked when my stepfather asked me to [accept] it from the man. Confused, I objected. My mother tried to reason with him that I was too young for marriage.”

But my stepfather [attacked] my mother, saying he could divorce her if she continued opposing his wishes. He also said [we should not turn down his offer] because we had already [spent] the money from the gentleman.”

Seven-year-old Tumpe Mwambene says she was forced to marry a 40-year-old herbalist in the Karonga District. He had treated her illness, but her father had no money to pay.

Mwambene says she did household chores and was beaten if she refused to have sex.

Mwambene and Simpokolwe have now returned to school, thanks in part to groups like the Chitipa Women’s Forum. It works with a project working to defend the rights of girls called Social Empowerment on Rights for Vulnerable and Excluded Women (SERVE). The project, which is funded by the NGO ActionAid, works to defeat any practice that prevents a girl from receiving an education.

The chairperson of the Forum, Ruth Mbale, says the group tries to convince parents to allow their daughters to go back to school, even if it means rescinding their decision to force her to marry:

“Since most women here did not go further in their education,” says Mbale, “it was good to discourage early marriages and urge young girls to proceed with education, taking advantage of government’s readmission policy which allows girls to go back to school.”

But Mbale says parents and sometimes chiefs insist that they are too poor to pay girls’ school fees. So she says members of her group contribute to a fund that helps support girls who cannot pay for their education.

An impact assessment shows that the project has had some success reducing child marriage in Chitipa district, where 40 married girls between seven and 16 years old have gone back to school.

In some areas, village officials like senior chief Mwaulambia are trying to end the tradition, especially, he says, because it’s unconstitutional:

“We agree that kupimbira is a bad practice, especially today, when we are told to treat both girls and boys the same. In my area, I make sure that it is being suppressed very vividly. If someone is forcing a child into early marriage, we as chiefs have our own ways of punishing our people, or we may tell [parents they must give a chicken as a penalty]. If they object, we have the powers to evict them.”

The SERVE project is also working to end other cultural practices that can interfere with the education of women, like kulowa kufa, which requires a widow to cleanse the village of death by having sex with a man. Another is nhlazi, under which the wife’s sister or another relative is given to the husband, sometimes even if the child bride is too young to become pregnant.

Similar projects are also being implemented in three other districts; Rumphi, Salima and Chiradzulu.

 

 

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