By Yamikani Yapuwa
Section 81 of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, offers protection of children from forced marriage or betrothal whereas section 22 of the newly amended constitution restricts any person under 18 from marrying.
Nonetheless, the law seems not enforced as girls as young as 14 years continue to be forced into child marriages.
Marita (not her real name), 15, from the area of Traditional Authority Zulu in the border district of Mchinji with Zambia to the West and Mozambique to the South West was forced into sex last year by a 22-year-old man.
“I was then in Standard 4 when I met this man one day. He offered me K1 000 and took me to his house.
“He told me to lie down and had sex with me. I tried to call for help but he gagged me,” Marita says.
Later, Marita reported the matter to her mother who, unfortunately, was not helpful.
“I went home and explained to my mother who told me to keep quiet arguing that such things happen and that there was nothing strange,” she recalls with a vivid tinge of regret in her tone.
Marita says she was later taken to the man to live as husband and wife after becoming pregnant from the forced sexual encounter.
“However, life was unbearable there as my husband was always beating me for no apparent reason to the extent of forcing me to go and till the land at night.
“One day, I went to work in the field and on my return home, I found that he had left home for Zambia. I left immediately for my mother’s house,” she laments.
Marita’s situation mirrors the predicament of many other girls who suffer in silence.
Joana (not her real name), 17, from the same area also became married at the age of 15 after falling pregnant.
Unlike Marita, Joana went to live with her husband on her own volition.
She has, however, now been reunited with her parents following her withdrawal from marriage through the ‘More Than Brides Marriage is No Child’s Play’ Project being implemented by Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO).
Both Marita and Joana are now young mothers with the responsibility of fending for their little ones.
The two premature mothers solely depend on piecework in people’s farms where they till ridges and earn K100 per ridge.
It goes without argument that the two girls’ childhood has been stolen forever.
According to United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) – Ending Child Marriage – Progress and Prospects 2012 Report, girls who marry and have children at a younger age are denied their childhood.
Retired Child Justice Magistrate Esmie Tembenu says girls in early marriages are usually forced to behave like adults and take marriage and family responsibilities at an age where they are beginning to explore themselves.
“When they fail to perform due to their tender age, they are rebuked or abandoned by their husbands just as the case with Marita.
“They are confined within the walls of their houses. Such girls cannot interact much with their parents and peers as well as neighbours,” Tembenu says.
Former Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Jean Kalilani says girls in child marriages are more likely to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted infections than unmarried, sexually active girls of the same age.
Kalilani explains that the child brides have virtually no power to negotiate for safe sex with their husbands as compared to the unmarried girls.
“Moreover, child marriage also endangers the lives of girls under 15 years who are five times more likely to die during childbirth than women in their 20s,” she says.
It is against this background that child rights activist Mallick Mnela spells out the need to treat child marriage as defilement.
“Child marriage is a crime and it has to be treated as such. In the event of an adult marrying a minor, that marriage is illegal and constitutes child abuse,” Mnela says.
He adds that child marriage and defilement are evils that need to be fought with heavy artillery.
However, Tembenu says the country has not done enough to prosecute men who defile or rape girls under the pretext of marriage due to lack of civic education coupled with entrenched cultural and traditional practices.
“For a court to convict a man who defiles or rapes a girl in disguise of marriage, the court needs consensual evidence.
“But the victims do not assist the prosecutors with strong evidence as they think and believe that there is nothing wrong out of ignorance,” Tembenu says.
She, therefore, stresses the need to sensitise parents ignorant of the evils of child marriage as well as prosecute and send perpetrators to jail if they continue marrying off their children.
On the other hand, Mnela underscores the significance of developing effective community based initiatives where issues of child marriage would be tackled at area, village and household levels.
“In areas where governance structures like mother groups have been used, incidents of child marriage have been well managed. Whenever there is support from the community, there is a high likelihood of success,” Mnela says.
Meanwhile, Kalilani says government is committed to deal with the problem by engaging parents, guardians and traditional leaders on the evils of forcing or allowing girl-children to enter marriage before the age of 18.
Malawi Police Service National Police Public Relations Officer James Kadadzera says the law enforcing agents are currently working together with traditional leaders in fighting against child marriages.
“We have intensified awareness to communities through messages that we put on radio. We also conduct community policing meetings to make people aware that a girl-child is not supposed to marry.
“Through these platforms, we also make people aware that sleeping with anyone who is below the age of 16 is defilement – an offence punishable by law,” Kadadzera says.