‘I was sold into marriage for £7 at the age of 12’
It is estimated that one in five girls across the world is married by the age of 18. Even countries that have laws against child marriage sometimes fail to enforce them. But in Malawi some are seeing the first signs of change.
The third time we visited Tamara we were told she had left for the nearby fields early in the morning, to till the soil.
At nine months pregnant, there was no rest for the 13-year-old.
Tamara (not her real name) had been sleeping on the floor of her aunt’s small hut for several months after her husband, a man in his 20s, had run away.
He had heard that social services were coming to rescue Tamara from their illegal marriage and took off before they arrived, leaving her to walk to her aunt’s village.
A lot has changed in Tamara’s life in the past few years. Born into a rural farming community in southern Malawi’s Neno district, her family lived below the Malawian government’s poverty line, like 65% of others in the region. The war in Ukraine, a direct trade ally to Malawi, added pressure – halting wheat and fertiliser supplies and pushing up prices.
When Tamara’s parents fell ill and died, in quick succession, their only child was taken in by her grandmother.
But after a month, when Tamara returned from school one day, her grandmother had some news.
“She told me I had to get married,” Tamara says. “She had already received money from a man.”
A man whom Tamara had never met had paid 15,000 Malawian Kwacha for her – around $9, or £7.
Tamara’s grandmother had already spent the money on maize for the family and the man was now impatient. He wanted the girl he had paid for to leave school and live with him.
Child marriage has been illegal in Malawi since 2017, but it has long been culturally acceptable in the country, and still continues in rural communities like Tamara’s, where about 85% of Malawi’s population live. More than 40% of girls in the country are married under the age of 18, according to the NGO Girls Not Brides.
“Life was difficult because the man was older,” Tamara says. “He used to physically abuse me by biting me every time I did something wrong.”
She lived with him for three months, until someone alerted social services. Then, as arrangements were being made for Tamara to return to school, she noticed something. She’d missed a couple of periods.
Tamara was 12 years old and expecting a baby.
Almost 100km (62 miles) away from Tamara’s aunt’s hut, a short drive from the border of Mozambique, a small bright green building blares out Malawian pop music. It’s the office of Radio Mzati, a local radio station.
A group of glamorous young women in their 20s are gathered in a radio studio, adjusting their microphones and laughing as they get ready to go on air.
“Hello! Hello! Welcome to another edition of Ticheze Atsikana,” booms host Chikondi Kuphata, “a programme that stands as a platform for us beautiful girls to discuss issues affecting us!”
Kuphata and co-host Lucy Morris switch between English and Chichewa – the programme’s name means “let’s chat” in Chichewa.
It’s a weekly show, sponsored by AGE Africa, an NGO that supports rural and vulnerable girls to stay in education, and it reaches more than four million listeners across Malawi. The majority of the audience are women in rural communities like Tamara’s.
When girls have an education and they know their rights, they know they can get help
Today’s subject is child marriage.
“A major reason here is poverty,” says Morris. “Because most of the families we come from are poor, our parents are not able to look after their children, so the best solution is to send a girl into a marriage.
“Girls marry men much older than them who can provide for them.”
The women encourage their listeners to send comments via WhatsApp, before breaking for a song, called Come Back. Its lyrics contain a clear message:
“You now need school for everything!
“It’s better you go back to school!
“Early marriage is not good!”
“When girls have an education and they know their rights, they know they can get help to stop child marriage. That’s part of our mission, to get girls talking, to share their stories and know that there is another way,” Morris says.
Her village, Gulumba, in the foothills of Mount Mulanje, has a women-only listening club for Ticheze Atsikan.
Another fan of the show, although he’s not invited to the listening group, is local chief Benson Kwelani. He says he encourages girls to stay in school, and will not give his blessing to a marriage if the girl is under 18.