By Charles Pensulo
BLANTYRE, Malawi, Aug 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — 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 when schools start reopening next month.
Senior Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, a well-known campaigner against early marriage, said an increase in the illegal practice as well as teen pregnancies during the pandemic had spurred her renewed push to save child brides.
Kachindamoto joined forces with women's rights groups for the campaign, spreading their message among parents and village leaders across the southern African nation, where high rates of early marriage persist despite a 2015 ban.
"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," Kachindamoto told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I removed some chiefs before for the same reason, so chiefs know the consequences of not adhering to my directive," she added.
In the case of girls who got pregnant during the COVID-19 lockdown, Kachindamoto said she had told local chiefs to encourage them to go back to school after they give birth.
Malawi passed a law banning child marriage in 2015 and raising the minimum age to 18, but it remains widespread.
Almost 47% of girls in Malawi are married before they turn 18 and 9% become child brides before their 15th birthday, according to the UN children's agency, UNICEF.
Early marriage 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.
Child brides are also at greater risk of domestic and sexual violence.
Reflecting a similar trend elsewhere in Africa, 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.
Education activist Benedicto Kondowe cited the example of the southern town of Mangochi, where cases of teen pregnancies and child marriages rose to 7,340 in July 2020 from 6,359 during the same month last year.
Maggie Kathewera Banda, executive director for Women's Legal Resource Centre, a charity, said girls' educational rights were being jeopardized.
"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.
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 welfare.
"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," she said.
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.
(Reporting by Charles Pensulo; editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)