Poverty enslaves young girls
Sixteen year-old Vyalema Mwakasungura is Standard 7 pupil at Kilipura Primary School in northern Malawi's border district of Karonga. Since her childhood, Mwakasungura has harboured one ambition in her life.
She has been working hard at school so that one day she could become a nurse. Asked why she has always cherished the idea of becoming a nurse, Mwakasungura explains that she was impressed and touched with the way one nurse treated her when she was admitted to Karonga District Hospital, after she sprained her left leg.
"That nurse cared for me as if I am her child and since then I have always dreamed of enrolling with a nursing school after completion of my secondary school studies," she used to explain.
But in February this year, her dream of becoming a nurse was dashed when, in the midst of hunger and in the name of poverty and culture, her parents told her to quit school and get married to a wealthy man so they could pay off their debts and secure more loans.
"But why mum? Why should I quit school, yet the government is offering free primary education?" she protested.
"Why are you objecting to our culture? There is nothing that you can do about our instruction that you should get married , retorted her parents. Fearing to be called a rebel, she bowed to her parents and relatives pressure and got married.
The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) said in a report released recently that poor parents, who couldn't look after their children, were forcing the girls into slavery, particularly in the northern border districts of Karonga and Chitipa.
The MHRC's principal investigations officer, Harry Kambwembwe, who authored the report after two years of research, said some parents gave away their daughters as a way of paying off loans and other debts they had incurred. "Some even exchange their daughters for food," he said.
Kambwembwe said better-off people in these areas took advantage of the situation to sexually abuse the girls. In a classic example of such abuse, one wealthy man had recruited 14 girls into becoming his wives on top of his legally wedded wife.
But for locals in the area, the practice - known as kupimbira - is an age-old tradition. It is popular among the Nyakyusa and Ngonde who live along the shores of Lake Malawi and along the Tanzanian boarder. It is also prevalent in Misuku Hills.
According to Kambwembwe, the girls are kept in perpetual bondage, abused in whatever form - especially sexually - by their masters. "This is a very archaic and inhuman practice that should not be tolerated in this time and era," he said.
The Commission's report said the practice of "kupimbira," which allows for a poor family to approach a rich man for a loan of cattle or money in exchange for their daughter, regardless of her age - has resurfaced over the past two years or so, due to the devastating hunger that hit some districts in northern Malawi.
The country only recently made a recovery from the widespread food shortages brought on by a combination of erratic weather conditions and the impact of HIV/AIDS. According to government statistics released by the Department of Disaster Preparedness and Rehabilitation, more than three million people required food aid at the height of last year's food crisis.
The situation was aggravated by the fact that Malawi is among the world's poorest nations, with about 65 per cent of the population living in abject poverty, on less than US $1 a day.
The author of the MHRC report, the commission's principal investigations officer, Kambwembwe, conducted an inquiry into the practice following a letter to the commission from concerned citizens and the media articles published in the Daily Nation Newspaper and its sister publication, The Weekend Nation .
In a letter to the Commission, the concerned citizen is reported to have "singled out a particular case at Iponga - a small rural township in the far north of Malawi - where a young girl of aged 13 was forced by her parents to marry an elderly man in repayment of 4,000 Malawi Kwacha (about US$44] which the parents owed the man",
Upon conducting interviews and getting written statements from community leaders, witnesses and church groups, Kambwembwe confirmed with locals that the incident had taken place and other similar customs violating the rights of children were being practiced in the area.
His report noted that the custom of "kuhaha" or "kuhara" were among those being practiced but not openly spoken of. "This is when a man admires a small girl and arranges with her parents to take care of her until she is mature enough to marry him. The suitor provides the girl's necessities, including school fees. But the man has the right to stop her schooling whenever he feels like it. Even before puberty the man has the right to take her as a wife. The girl cannot refuse such an arrangement because her parents will have already taken the dowry," reads part of the Malawi Human Rights Commission Report.
Meanwhile church groups have started conducting education and awareness campaigns to prevent the continuation of this barbaric practice, which enslaves young girls to elderly men against their will. Kambwembwe noted that all such practices are unconstitutional and slave-like.
"This is a very archaic and inhuman practice that should not be tolerated in this democratic dispensation. The MHRC, therefore has an obligation to safeguard and promote the rights of such vulnerable young girls," the report said.
It called for urgent intervention through the designing of "relevant and well-focused civic education strategies", noting that because the areas concerned are remote "with little or no communication (newspapers, radio and television)," on-site campaigns were needed.
The study cautioned that in designing intervention programmes in the area, language choice is very critical because most of the people are not conversant with Malawi's official languages, English or Chichewa.
As a starting point, the report recommended that the MHRC should explore designing joint programmes with the churches, which already have some programmes in the areas concerned.
Without saying that he has plans to break this barbaric cultural practice, President Bakili Muluzi has visited Karonga and Chitipa districts where he has donated over 200 metric tonnes of maize.
"I don't want people here to suffer from hunger. My administration will make sure that you are provided with adequate food so that instead of worrying about hunger you should spend your energies on development activities," said Muluzi in Karonga.
Many analysts believe if government can break the hunger-poverty vicious circle through the provision of food, farm inputs and teaching peasant farmers modern farming techniques, the unacceptable cultural practices in northern Malawi would die and girls like Mwakasungura will be realising their lifetime ambitions.