Some communities in Malawi are beginning to fight child marriage their own way — with music, dance, and a few tears.
Moreen was on the floor, cowering and shaking in fear while asking for forgiveness. An older woman, Moreen’s mother-in-law, pointed down towards her and yelled about the unfinished household chores. Moreen had been wiping the floors, scrubbing the pots and working in the fields all day. But nothing prevented the aggressive attitude of her mother-in-law, nor her husband coming back home drunk.
Moreen’s mother-in-law finally approached to slap her — and the audience started booing.
In this village in Malawi’s Chiradzulu district, an open space flanked by maize fields and baobab trees regularly functions as a community gathering space. A few times a year, residents get together to watch a play produced by community activists. For the latest show, the activists decided to stage an issue that millions rural Malawians witness on a regular basis: Child marriage and domestic abuse.
Moreen got up from the floor. Both women turned towards the audience and asked, “So, how would you deal with a situation like this at home?”
The crowd began to talk. “School should come first,” said a young woman into the microphone. “There are not enough girls in our schools.”
A middle-aged man added, “Orphans are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. If we have orphaned neighbors, we must be very careful about what’s going on there.”
It’s been an eventful year for Moreen. She is a community theatre volunteer, middle school student, and 16-year-old mother of two that recently left her abusive husband to move back in with her family. Moreen was forced into a marriage at the age of 12, which resulted in her dropping out of school to become a housewife. But during her second pregnancy, when she regularly faced violence and learned that her husband contracted her HIV, she decided she had enough.
“He was beating me even when I was pregnant and gave me this illness,” she said. “I couldn’t take it anymore. I packed my clothes and went back to my family’s house with my son.”
Like the majority of Malawians, Moreen is coming from a smallholder farming family. They grow maize and groundnuts in their modest farm, which barely feeds the family of seven.
In Malawi, many early marriages happen because of poverty as the girls are urged to move out of their homes and economically relieve their families. Hence, Moreen had doubts whether her family would want her back — especially with her son and another baby on the way.
“I didn’t let my family know about my decision about leaving my husband. I was scared they would turn me down and tell me to stay with him,” Moreen said.
But when Moreen showed up at her family’s door with tears in her eyes and scars on her pregnant body, they couldn’t turn her away. They supported her decision to be separated from her violent husband and go back to school. Moreen’s grandmother even agreed to take care of her children during the day.
That’s why she is now back at school, pursuing her dream of becoming a lawyer. And somewhere between being a child bride and a girls’ rights activist, she found a passion for the stage. “I want other girls in my village to be aware of what can happen when you marry young,” said Moreen. “Also, acting is a lot of fun.”
Although Moreen is worried about her own future and health, she represents a new trend among Malawian girls. She found the courage to say no to a future of misery.
Malawi has one of the highest early marriage rates in Africa. According to the organization Girls Not Brides, one out of two Malawian girls will be married by the time they are 18. “The sheer number of girls affected, and what this means in terms of lost childhoods and shattered futures, underline the urgency of banning the practice of child marriage once and for all,” said Anthony Lake, an executive director at UNICEF.
In addition to each child marriage being an individual tragedy, they contribute to a snowballing mass of problems for entire villages and communities. Girls who marry young rarely continue their educations and are likely to face abuse from their husbands, who are usually significantly older than the brides.
Although many boys also marry before the age of 18, the practicepredominantly impacts girls, who typically marry men in their 20s and 30s. That said, since polygamy is still practiced in some parts of Malawi, some girls can also end up as the second or third wives of much older men.
Although many families marry their daughters believing it will secure girls’ future against poverty, it usually robs the girls of future economic prospects.Married girls are traditionally expected to fulfill the duties of a housewife after they drop out of school. Thus, their economic contribution usually remains limited to domestic and agricultural duties.
Once girls are married, few use contraception. Most child brides, including Moreen, become pregnant soon after marriage — which carries its own risks. Children born to teenage mothers have a higher risk of being stillborn, dying soon after birth, and having low birth weight. The mothers, too, face a higher risk of complications in pregnancy, as well as a heightened risk of HIV and other STDs.
Put together, child marriage often traps girls — and by extension, their communities — in an intergenerational cycle of poverty.
In response, the East African nation last year reformed its Marriage Act and raised the minimum legal age of marriage without parental consent to 18. But in remote areas like Chiradzulu District, where Moreen is from, the effect of these laws is yet to materialize.
Instead, many of these rural communities are finding their own solutions against child marriage.
According to many child marriage experts, one of the most important things that poorer communities can employ is sustained community dialogue. “Working at the community level can help those key decision makers in a girls’ life [such as] fathers, mothers, aunts or traditional leaders understand the harmful consequences of the practice — which can help change attitudes and reduce the acceptance among the community,” said Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership working to end child marriage.
As far as creative and energetic young women like Moreen are concerned, generating community dialogue can take many different forms. While her passion is acting, some of her peers write poems, compose songs, or dance.
“Community theatre, music, and art have all proven great ways for communities to start a dialogue around the issue of child marriage,” said Sundaram of Girls Not Brides. “They can also help girls and their communities to understand and express some of the harmful consequences of the practice.”
Several of Moreen’s peers are part of Chiradzulu’s Girls’ Choir, an amateur band comprised of girls between the ages of 11 and 16 who never had any musical training. The girls, who practice after school, regularly sing at community events. They are known to sometimes move their audience’s into tears.
“We sometimes write our own songs or we write new lyrics to other folk songs,” said Grace, a 14-year-old student. “Coming together with my friends and singing is my favorite thing to do. When someone listens to our songs and appreciates us, it’s a great feeling.”
In one of their most popular songs, they ask their communities to be sent to school instead of being married off. Following the plea to not be married, dozens of fathers sign a paper stating their daughters won’t be brides and will go to school instead. Initiated by Girls Empowerment Network, a local grassroots organization, the event was the first of many that are planned to take place in other villages.
“I promise not to marry my daughter off, and I will support her dreams of becoming a teacher as much as I can,” said the father of one teenage girl, holding his daughter’s hand.
Local authorities then collect the papers fathers signed, making sure they’re are held accountable to their promises.
The fight against child marriage takes a more personal, visceral dimension when community members such as Moreen and amateur singers of Chiradzulu come to the fore.
“Most girls get married young because they don’t know their rights,” said Memory Banda, an 18-year-old activist, who avoided getting married at a young age. “Also, if you reject tradition, you are considered childish and immature. You get bullied. It’s not easy for such a young girl to rebel against the tradition.”
But girls like Moreen and amateur singers of Chiradzulu have the power to break the stigmas by their acts. “Positive role models are crucial to eliminate child marriage. Girls who escape or avoid getting married can inspire and empower their peers,” said Faith Phiri, executive director of Girls Empowerment Network.
In tight-knit villages and communities of rural Malawi, most public events are also attended by traditional leaders, such as village or district chiefs. When activists emotionally move these leaders and inspire them to join their cause against early marriage, the action accelerates.
Malawi’s 28 administrative districts all have traditional chiefs who collaborate with the government. These hereditary roles of leadership hold tremendous power and influence. For instance, in most communities, important affairs such as marriage and divorce have to be approved and blessed by the local traditional leaders. Hence, these authorities, who are able to create and enforce local bylaws, have an exclusive power to end child marriage in their own communities.
“Nobody knows what’s going on in these villages better than the traditional leaders,” added Phiri.
Ida Alli, the highest ranking traditional leader in the Chiradzulu district, has made the minimum age of marriage 22 in her villages. She convinced over a hundred families to not marry their daughters off in the last year. She has been collaborating with the activists from the Girls Empowerment Network, who joins her in her efforts of advocacy and can financially support some of the vulnerable girls and families.
“If I hear the rumours that someone might be interested in marrying their daughters’ off, I personally go to their home, invite the male’s side of the family, and talk to both of the families,” Alli said. “We talk for hours, and usually for days. I warn them about the dangers of marrying young and the importance of education.”
Alli has seen the impact of her own activism. “When girls know that we’ll support them, it’s easier for them to refuse getting married and insist at staying at school,” she said. “If there’s one girl like that, there’ll be others who will say ‘Oh, I can do that too.’ Every year there are more girls in our schools.”
“Marriage? No worries with that. Every girl can get married at some point. We have enough decent boys and they are not going anywhere. But education? We have to sort that one first.”
There’s no doubt that eradicating early marriage in Malawi is a mammoth task. Even when girls avoid getting married young, many of them are challenged by poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and in the case of many like Moreen, HIV.
Nevertheless, when girls start to sing, write poems, act and dance to demand to not get married, claim their right to a childhood and inspire their community members to help them, it can only mean one thing: the beginning of a revolution.
This article was published by The Development Set, a Medium publication made possible by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.