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Malawi traditional leader calls for ‘lockdown’ child marriages to be dissolved

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A senior traditional leader in Malawi has ordered village chiefs to dissolve all the child marriages that took place during the country’s coronavirus lockdown so girls can return to classes on the opening of schools next month.

Senior Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, known for campaigning against early marriages, said an increase in the illegal practice as well as teen pregnancies during the Covid-19 pandemic had rekindled her push to save child brides. Kachindamoto, with the help of other women’s rights groups, aims at spreading the message to all parents and village leaders.

“We’ve been going in the villages advising people… to take care of the children so that they can return to school when they reopen because that’s where the children’s future is,” said Kachindamoto. “I removed some chiefs before for the same reason, so chiefs know the consequences of not adhering to my directive,” she added..

Malawi passed a law banning child marriage in 2015 and raising the minimum age to 18, but the practice has never stopped. According to the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, almost 47% of girls in Malawi are married before they turn 18 and 9% become child brides before their 15th birthday.

Besides the risk of domestic and sexual violence, early marriages not only deprives girls of education and opportunities, but raises the risk of death or serious childbirth injuries if they have children before their bodies are ready.Officials and charities in Malawi say more girls than usual have become pregnant or married during lockdown restrictions, which kept school children at home and hit family incomes.

According Benedicto Kondowe an education activist, in the southern town of Mangochi, cases of teen pregnancies and child marriages rose to 7,340 in July 2020 from 6,359 during the same month last year.

Concerned Maggie Kathewera Banda, executive director for Women’s Legal Resource Centre, a charity organisation said girls’ educational rights were in danger. “Obviously, it’s a concern to us because it means that rights to education of the girl-childen are being infringed upon,” she said, adding that her organization has commissioned a detailed study into the reasons for the increase of the practice.

Government officials backed Kachindamoto’s campaign and urged parents to prioritise their children’s education despite current economic difficulties caused by the pandemic.

“Some of the parents are having a tough time making sure that they get school fees for the children,” said Patricia Kaliati, minister of gender, community development and social welfar. “The communities are committed and have convinced us that they would like to educate their children. Let all the children who were married go back to school after the marriages are dissolved, …the process of dissolving the marriages should, however, involve church and other influential community leaders”, the minister added.

School closures in 185 countries during the COVID-19 outbreak will “disproportionately affect adolescent girls further entrench gender gaps in education and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and early and forced marriage,” according to Plan International and UNESCO.

Liberty Pazvakawambwa SADC News

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