Let Girls Be Girls


Child marriage is a real issue throughout Africa. I’ve touched on it in pretty much every single article about gender inequality and education.

Malawi is no exception. As the poorest country I visited on my Faces2Hearts journey, most of the continent’s social issues are further intensified here. The European Union (EU) is funding some wonderful programmes to combat the problem and I was lucky to visit one of them.

The initiative is spearheaded by Save The Children and has some lofty goals. Their overall aim is, of course, to reduce the rate of child marriages while also targeting human trafficking. But it was their methodology I found particularly interesting.

Their point of entry consists largely of child led clubs. They’re small – one club typically has ten members, half of them school girls and half boys. But their aspirations are anything but. On a daily basis they track absenteeism and encourage children to take part in school activities.

After noting down that a child has been absent they take it upon themselves to find them and bring them back to school. If they find out a girl has been forced into marriage they will inform the relevant authorities and try to bring the perpetrators to justice. In short, they are working from within and fixing issues right as soon as they arise.

Acting fast is key when it comes to controversial topics like child marriage or human trafficking. The longer a situation like that is allowed to go on, the harder it becomes to repair.

Child marriage hasn’t always been illegal in Malawi. It was only outlawed at the end of April 2017, through President Peter Mutharika’s constitutional amendment. The new law raised marriage age to 18 years, following the 2015 Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill.

But attitudes are slow to adapt. According to government statistics, half of all Malawian girls will be married by the time they turn 18. The figure is about 8% for men. You can even find brides as young as 9 or 10 whose grooms are several decades older. Child marriage is closely linked to poverty – in rural areas girls will often be forced to marry very young to improve their family’s financial status.

The husband-to-be will pay the girl’s family a sum of money, often adding in gifts like cattle. This makes the transaction tempting to many struggling families. Malawi has the highest rate of child marriage in Eastern and South Africa, second only to Mozambique. This is why the EU’s aid is so crucial.

 

Despite dealing with these heavy issues on a regular basis, the local children haven’t lost any of their wide-eyed wonder. When I visited the child led clubs put on an incredible show for us. Dancing, singing, debating – all I could see was children being children. Girls being girls.

Most of the clips in the video above, which I created to celebrate World Happiness Day, came from my day at the school. I want you to get a feel for the atmosphere for yourself so I’ve included a photo gallery below. You can click any of the images to see it in its original size.

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