Malawi is one of the top ten hotspots of child marriage worldwide, with five out of every ten girls married off before the age of 18. This is majorly attributed to strong taboosaround child and early marriage practices such as theKusasa Fumbi practice, in which girls (usually aged 10-12) who have just begun their menstrual cycles have sex with a man as a way of removing “childhood dust;” Chitomero, another common practice that encourages parents to offer dowry to an older man who agrees to marry their young daughter; and kupimbira, a practice in the northern part of Malawi where a young daughter is married off as repayment for a debt.
These practices expose girls to HIV and sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), denying much the chance to finish school and exposing them to higher risks of maternal mortality due to early pregnancies. Child and early marriages violate a girl’s right to education and choice on who and when to get married, perpetuating poverty levels among various communities.
As we commemorate International Day of the Girl Child this year on 11 October, we are reminded of such injustices and violations holding back girls from achieving their full potential, and are presented with an opportunity to weigh in on innovations that are making significant change for the rights and wellbeing of girls, especially at grassroots levels. With the theme “Empowering Adolescent Girls: Ending the Cycle of Violence,” this year’s Day of the Girl Child will focus on recognizing the importance of investing in and empowering adolescent girls in an effort to eliminate the various forms of violence adolescent girls are faced with on a daily basis.
The Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) in Malawi is one such organization tackling child and early marriages to empower girls and enable them to advocate for their rights and make their voices heard. Through a program called “The rive of life”, implemented in partnership with Let Girls Lead, 40 girls came together and shared their personal stories in form of art, creative writing and poetry, and also discussed their life aspirations and challenges in the communities they live in. These stories were compiled into a publication called I will marry when I want to, which is currently being used as an advocacy toolkit to make the case for girls’ rights in the country.
Other approaches used include the Dance for Your Rights campaigns where, through public dialogues and theatre for social change activities, many issues affecting girls are addressed in an edutainment (educational entertainment) approach reaching over 1000 people. In addition, feminist leadership trainings in the form of capacity building for young feminists and advocates are carried out in the country reaching over 70 girls at every training.
The GENET platform equips girls with knowledge and skills in advocacy, capacity building, funding and technical support to build their confidence, and to enable them to approach local and national leaders to speak about these unfair cultural practices. This has led to alliances with village chiefs who have helped in the formation of bylaws at local community levels to penalize men who engage in cultural practices that encourage child marriage, and has led to an increase of the legal age of marriage to 21.
The newly developed community laws also punish parents who give away their daughters at a young age, making them perform three months of janitorial service in local schools.
In an interview with Let Girls Lead, Faith Phiri, the Executive Director of GENET confirms that over 60 chiefs have endorsed community laws protecting thousands of girls from child marriage. These village chiefs have reformed; creating community led Girls’ Education Funds to help survivors of child marriage go back to school.