Looking back on my first three weeks in Malawi, one thing that has really stood out to me in particular so far is the amazing amount of care and support the girl child students receive from everyone at Wells for Zoë.
In Malawi, education for girls still remains low, where girls are often under enrolled and outnumbered in schools. Seeing the difference that Wells for Zoë makes in these girls’ lives is incredible – providing fees to allow them to attend school – an opportunity that they most likely would not have otherwise had.
Throughout my three years studying international development, women’s rights in developing countries has always been one of my main interests and the focus of many of my assignments. Now, by seeing first hand all the girls that come to Wells for Zoë every Saturday for classes, my interest in the many barriers that girls face in attaining an education has grown even more, questioning the reasons why such challenges still exist today. So, after the classes on Saturday, I decided to do some more research!
The high prevalence of Child Marriage is one of the main barriers facing Malawian girls in attaining an education.
The 2017 constitutional amendment raised the age of marriage to 18. But, Malawi still has the 11th highest right of child marriage in the world and the 9th highest in Africa, with nearly half (47%) of women marrying before the age of 18.
12% of women marry before the age of 15. Some are as young as 9 or 10.
Typically, a first child is born about 1 year after marriage. This means that teen pregnancy rate in Malawi is very high, with 29% of girls aged 15-19 in Malawi already childbearing.
Rural areas have higher rates of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy than urban areas (the Southern and Northern regions of Malawi have higher rates than the Central region, which is largely urban).
Many families may marry off their daughter in the belief that it will give them a better life – ‘Kupimbira’ is a traditional custom where young girls are married off (by force) to often older, rich men in settlement of debts or for financial gain. Girls who reject forced marriages may be threatened, verbally abused, or thrown out of their homes by their families. Some parents force their daughters to have sex with men in order to receive money or food. Marriage is then regarded as a means of protecting girls who get pregnant from undermining family honour within communities. Girls are often abandoned by husbands, leaving them to care for children without any financial support. This can force girls into prostitution, commercial sexual exploitation and child labour.
Education has a significant relationship to age at first marriage in Malawi – women with lower levels of education are much more likely to marry and have children early.
“The main problem for estimating the impact of child marriage on education attainment is that the decision by a girl (or her parents) to marry early is likely to be itself a function of the girl’s education potential”.
For example, in some cases, if a girl is weaker academically, she is likely to have lower future prospects than a girl who is stronger academically. This may lead her to drop out of school and may be more willing to marry early, or her parents may be more inclined to let her marry early. Girls may find it difficult to return to school after marriage and pregnancy because of lack of money for school fees, lack of child care, unavailability of flexible school programs or adult classes, and the need to do household chores. Husbands or in-laws may not allow them to continue school after marriage.
Child marriage also has negative impacts on women’s and girls’ realisation of their human rights, including their right to health, education, freedom from physical, mental and sexual violence, and the right to marry only when they are able and willing to give their full consent. The younger the age of marriage, the more serious these impacts can be.
By providing fees for secondary school girl child students, Wells for Zoë helps girls to avoid unwanted marriages, not only by giving them the ability to obtain an education, but by giving them a safe environment to spend their days. Even in cases where girls are weaker academically and may not have as many future educational/employment opportunities, they can still attend school each day and avoid forced sex, abuse and violence, and hopefully forced pregnancy or marriage.