PHALOMBE, MALAWI - Malawi has one of the highest rates of early marriage and teenage pregnancy in the world, with about half of girls marrying before the age of 18, according to government records. Aid groups say the coronavirus pandemic's closing of schools has worsened the trend.
A 17-year-old girl from the Phalombe district, who asked not to be identified by name, says she became hopeless when the government closed schools in March.
Like many other girls in poor rural areas, where schools provide a favorite pastime, the teen struggled to find ways to make money.
"We instead resorted to go about places doing piece jobs to earn money, but when the piece jobs became scarce, I had no other option but to start a relationship with a man," she said.
A resulting pregnancy led to another challenge after her parents kicked the primary school student out of their home.
She says the problem she faces is lack of food and clothes. She says the man who impregnated her sometimes brings her food, but it is not enough.
The teen is among thousands of Malawian girls who have been negatively impacted by the closure of schools because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Another teenage mother says poverty is to blame for her predicament.
"Many men promise to buy us things, like smartphones, shoes and clothes," she said. "This is what lured me into having sex with a man. But he never gave me any of these."
In a bid to reverse the trend, the Center for Alternatives for Victimized Women and Children is encouraging youths to access sexual reproductive health services, or SRHS, which include the use of condoms.
"We are conducting awareness to these youths, as well as their parents," said Linda Alimoso, a program officer with the center.
The organization says it is also empowering women's groups, such as Mothers Group, to help children leave their marriages.
"There are some girls who were married ... but we have managed to withdraw them from marriage and now they are back in their homes. Because once a child is married, she rarely has a chance to proceed with education after delivery," said Mothers Group leader Maltida Matiya. "So, we discuss with parents ways to look after the pregnant girl until she returns to school."
While the date for reopening schools remains uncertain, authorities are also urging health facilities to offer free contraceptive services to help protect girls from unintended pregnancies.