In Malawi, the incidence of early marriage is said to have reached an alarming rate. According to recent statistics, the frequency of marriages of people under the age of 18 has been rising, primarily in the southern part of the country.

Non-governmental organizations and other activists have long called for an end to the practice. The police, women, and human rights activists say there are more cases now than in previous years. VOA English to Africa reporter Eldson Chagara asked people in Malawi for their opinions on early marriage.

Among those who married at a young age is a fourteen year-old girl named Ellah Chirwa.

Two years ago, her family forced her to marry a 55-year-old man. She is an orphan and a school dropout. At 14, Ella is already staying alone with no one to look after her. The man who married her cannot be found. But Ella has run away from her forced marriage and has decided to be on her own in the commercial capital of Blantyre.

Ella says she was living a happy life before losing her parents to HIV/AIDS. She is asking for alms along Victoria Avenue in downtown Blantyre.

With cases of rape and child abduction in the cities increasing,

Ella?s chances of being exploited by men are high. Already she says some have threatened to kidnap her and take her for a wife. She says if only someone would come to her rescue, she would like to go back to school. Local human rights organizations, which have a backlog of child abuse cases, have yet to help her.

Ella passed her examinations for primary education and was selected to start secondary school but cannot because she lacks the money to survive. Her grandparents, who are taking care of other children, have refused to help her.

Her story is similar to other young girls in Malawi. According to government figures, just 15% of girls finish high school, compared with 26% of boys. Some girls are pressed into marriage for the sake of a dowry or because their parents are under too much economic stress.

The Catholic Church in Malawi, which emphasizes the importance of marriage, is also involved in family issues. The Archdiocese of Blantyre has established a unit called Family Development Services that is looking into various issues regarding marriage.

Father Gracious Kunkeyani is responsible for the section.     

?I know it is not very easy to break through because some cultures are very strong.  But I know things are going to work out for the better. What we are doing is to encourage parents to come into round table open talks and discuss issues not only events but we have to get down the issues and see how best we go through it.?

Among the topics discussed at the church-parent roundtables is the importance of encouraging children to go to school rather than forcing them into marriage. The roundtable talks are organized in areas where the practice is said to be rampant. Among the tribes that are linked to this practice are the Yao and Lomwe. It has been observed that children in the lakeshore districts of Mangochi, Nkhotakota and Salima are among the victims who are taken as wives by local fishermen and businessmen.

Meanwhile, researchers and policymakers in fields ranging from education to health and economic development are calling for a global campaign to delay the age at which women marry and to ensure that when they marry, they do so of their own free will.

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