LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In parts of Malawi, when a girl reaches puberty she may receive a night-time visit from a “hyena” – the name given to an older man who has sex with girls to “clean out the dust” of childhood and prepare them for marriage.
The ritual is one of several traditional practices that campaigners against child marriage are trying to eradicate in Malawi, where half the girls wed before their 18th birthday and one in 10 is married by 15.
Brussels Mughogho, country director of international development charity EveryChild, urged Malawi’s new president, Peter Mutharika, to speed up a proposed law which would ban marriage before 18, in line with international treaties.
“We need effective action to tackle child marriage. We need leadership from him,” Mughogho told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Early marriage deprives girls of education and opportunities, trapping them and their children in poverty. It also increases the risk of serious injury or death if girls have babies before their bodies are ready.
Malawi has the world’s 10th highest rate of child marriage and one of the worst maternal mortality rates, with teenage pregnancies estimated to account for 20-30 percent of all maternal deaths.
Mughogho said it was vital to work with traditional leaders to end harmful practices including early sexual initiation which fuels child marriage. In some cases girls are also left with HIV-AIDS. In others they are burdened with unwanted pregnancies, forcing them to quit school.
“Traditional leaders in Malawi are the custodians of culture,” Mughogho said. “If you want to change a cultural practice you have to talk to the traditional leaders and convince them so that they are agents of change.”
Some members of the Tumbuka and Sena ethnic groups pull a girl out of school for a week when she has her first period and shave part of her head – a sign she is ready to marry, Mughogho said. In some areas of Malawi it is also customary for a family to give a visiting community leader one of their daughters for the night.
Mughogho said his team was working with tribal leaders to introduce by-laws banning such traditions. But he said laws alone could not end child marriage unless Malawi also tackled basic problems such as poverty and hunger.
More than half Malawi’s population lives below the national poverty line. In many cases parents marry off their daughters so they have one less mouth to feed and to get a “bride price” - or dowry - often in the form of cattle. Girls themselves may be keen to marry if they aren't getting enough food at home.
Mughogho said solutions could be as simple as teaching farmers how to make manure for their crops to boost harvests. If farmers can feed their families they are less likely to marry off their daughters.
Another initiative he said was paying off was the creation of community banks which give people loans to start businesses, helping them to keep their daughters in school.
Mughogho said child marriage not only destroyed a girl’s future but also perpetuated intergenerational poverty - children of parents with no education or skills are very unlikely to break out of the poverty trap.
“At an individual level (child marriage) means that girl’s future is likely to be miserable. But at the country level it’s affecting development,” he added.
“If we are to end poverty in Africa, if we are to break out of this vicious circle of poverty, we have to make a meaningful investment in children, now.”
Mughogho said he had been particularly affected by a girl called Maggie who was married at 15, but is now back in secondary school.
When Maggie told him her ambition was to be country director of an international organisation like him, Mughogho was so inspired he dug into his own pocket to pay for her schooling for a term.
“We have to help girl children realise their ambitions,” he said.