NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – At the age of 10, Chimwemwe started having sex with a 15-year-old boy because he gave her money to buy the food and clothes that her parents could not afford.
When she got pregnant, their parents forced them to get married. Her husband often beats her but she has nowhere else to go.
“I don’t want to go back to my parents. So I would rather live with him even if he beats me,” Chimwemwe, now aged 14, told Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report on child marriage in Malawi. “I cannot manage on my own.”
Malawi has the eighth highest rate of child marriage in the world, with half of girls marrying before the age of 18, according to the United Nations. Some marry as young as 9 or 10.
Despite Malawi law prohibiting sex with a girl or boy younger than 16, the constitution allows a child aged 15 to marry. There is no exemption in the law to protect someone from having sex with his or her 15-year-old spouse.
“When a girl gets married, it effectively ends her childhood, it ends her education, it increases her risk of domestic violence and it puts her at risk of dying during childbirth,” Agnes Odhiambo, author of the report told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It keeps the girl, her children and her family in a continuous cycle of poverty… It essentially holds the whole country’s progress down.”
“Unless Malawi can address child marriage then I don’t think they are going to be seeing a lot of progress very soon,” said Odhiambo.
TAUGHT TO HAVE SEX
Living in poverty, kept out of school and taught how to have sex from a young age, it is no surprise that half of Malawian girls become child brides.
“I decided to get a boyfriend who could give me money so that I can be in school. He gave me money, bought me soap and books,” said Alinane who got pregnant at 14.
Adolescents who fall pregnant are pushed to marry to safeguard family honour.
Parents also force their daughters to marry so that they will have one less mouth to feed or to receive dowry.
“My grandmother and sister wanted me to marry a trader by the lakeside. I refused. They threatened me to leave the house if I did not marry the man,” said Chanika, who married at 15.
Cultural traditions also drive child marriage. In initiation ceremonies, girls are taught how to please men in bed.
“Girls as young as nine are taught to put a boiled egg in their vagina so that they can expand and start having sex with men,” said Odhiambo.
“They are expected to actually start having sex after these initiation ceremonies which they call ‘to remove dust’ in their local languages… A man is hired to come and have sex with these girls at the end of initiation.”
Once they fall pregnant, most child brides do not have the time, money or support to continue with their education, even though the government has a policy of readmitting teenage mothers.
Almost 32,000 girls dropped out of school due to marriage and 20,000 due to pregnancy between 2010 and 2013, according to government statistics.
In Malawi, only 57 of women can read, compared to 74 percent of men.
Uneducated and unemployed, child brides easily get trapped in violent, abusive marriages.
“My husband goes away without leaving food and takes long to come back home. My husband also beats me and is a womaniser,” said Kalinde, a 23-year-old mother of two who married at 15.
“When my husband comes back from other women and wants sex, I just accept because he is my husband. We do not use condoms because he already infected me with HIV.”
Odhiambo is hopeful that a new law making primary education compulsory for all, passed in October, will keep more girls in school and delay their marriage.
“There’s a lot of discrimination in the community in terms of not sending girls to school and I think this law will tell parents that all children must go to school,” she said.
She also wants to see the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill passed into law, which would raise the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18. The bill is currently being discussed at the ministerial level, according to a U.N. report.
“Having a clear minimum age of marriage is important because you recognise that children do not have the maturity to enter into marriage. You are also offering them legal protection from the abuse, violence and exploitation that come with child marriage.”
Until the law makes it clear that child marriage is wrong, the problems of young girls are unlikely to be taken seriously.
“He beat me when I was pregnant until I got a miscarriage. I went to the police to report him but the police didn’t do anything,” said Hiwa, aged 15.