"He Said He Loved Me" – Devastating Stories Of Child Marriage In Malawi

When Rose* was 10, her teacher started calling her "amai akunyumba", which means "my wife". He did it in a jokey way, she says, and was nice to her, giving her biscuits and popcorn.
Her friends at her school in southern Malawi laughed about it, so she did, too. But then things changed. Her 48-year-old teacher kept calling her amai akunyumba as she entered sixth grade and her periods started. A few weeks later, when she was 12, he invited her to his home and raped her.
"He undressed me and parted my legs… I was scared," says Rose. "I told him I was feeling some pain. He told me that when I got home I should not tell anyone what happened, but just say I was having stomach aches."
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Her teacher told her again to keep quiet. Then he suggested that his jokey nickname for her could become a reality.
"He told me that he loved me and would take care of me," says Rose.
Luckily, a few weeks later, Rose’s mum Anna* found a letter from the teacher to her daughter. It had sexual content, and Anna was concerned enough to go to the police, where specialist officers helped Rose to tell her story and seek justice for the crimes committed against her.
Rose’s teacher is now awaiting trial for his abuse, but it could have ended very differently. Malawi is one of the worst places in the world for child marriage, and one in two girls are married before their 18th birthday, according to Unicef. The situations often involve abuse either before or after the marriage takes place.
Photo: Courtesy of Plan Malawi
Left, Alinikisa Mphongolo
"What happens in cases like this sometimes, when the teacher knows he is in the wrong, is that he pre-emptively marries the girl so that it doesn’t look like a crime," says Alinikisa Mphongolo, a project officer with the NGO Plan International in Malawi who has supported Rose. "After seeing that this was a serious case – that’s when he started negotiating, saying maybe I could take care of your daughter, suggesting marriage. It’s horrible."
There are a number of child marriage scenarios. Often, the children themselves want to get married early, or a girl falls pregnant and is married to protect the family from shame. In other situations, families are poor, and decide it is better for their daughter to be married off young and in the care of another household where she might get more to eat. Men can exploit this, too, offering bribes to marry young girls. In some areas of the country, child marriage is a common cultural practice, and educating girls – because girls drop out of school when they are married – is not seen as important.
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Of course, that’s one of the key problems: Women and girls not finishing school represents a serious loss of potential, not only for the girls themselves but for Malawi as a country. Early marriage and young wives – some as young as 11 – getting pregnant also puts a huge strain on the health system, and causes lots of health problems and even deaths among girls who are just not old enough to be mothers.
"And if girls get married, the cycle of poverty is continued," says Mphongolo. "The chances of that child finishing education are very low. So they get married early, have a baby, then you have that baby having a baby, and the cycle is not broken."
Photo: Courtesy of Plan Malawi
But things are beginning to change. Last year, marriage before the age of 18 was made illegal, a huge and symbolic step for Malawi.
Child marriage campaigners say it’s too early to tell if the law’s been a success, and also point out that there’s a long way to go to change tradition and culture, as well as focusing government investment on the surrounding infrastructure to support girls, from education to sex education.
"The fact is, if we are going to win this war against child marriage, we need a multi-pronged approach," says Macbain Mkandawire, a child rights advocate and member of the Girls Not Brides coalition with his organisation, Youth Net and Counselling (Yoneco), based in Zomba, Malawi.
"It’s a positive change that people are standing up for children’s rights more – getting them into school, not marriage – but there are still major issues for the government to address. We can get children into school, but if there are no teachers, that is no good."
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Yoneco has been at the vanguard of the fight against child marriage for years. It set up a helpline for children in 2006 which is now national, and this week launched an app to make it easier for children to get in touch about any issue they need help with.
Mkandawire says increased awareness among communities that child marriage is wrong has made all the difference in recent years: "People call and say, 'There is a marriage being arranged in area X, we want some intervention', and then we can send the police or the government. The helpline has been able to end a few child marriages this way – we tell them this is against the law, the child is a minor."
This kind of community vigilance and support is critical in ending child marriage. Plan International runs youth groups in schools under its 18+ campaign, helping children learn what’s right and how to protect each other. And in a country where the rates of child marriage are so high, the motivation for the children to take part often comes from personal experience – in many cases the clubs are made up of girls who have escaped their own abusive partnerships.
Family history also motivated Memory Banda, a 20-year-old child marriage activist who was right at the heart of the campaign to change the law despite – or perhaps, because of – her youth.
Memory joined the fight because she witnessed what happened when her sister fell pregnant aged 11, and was forced to marry the father of her unborn child.
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"At the time, I was young, and I thought this was normal," she remembers. "But I quickly realised the devastating impact it had on her when she was further abused in marriage. When she came home I saw the person who had been my little sister wasn’t my little sister anymore."
Photo: Courtesy of Plan Malawi
She hopes the law means that no more girls have to suffer like this – and so does Rose, who is now living with her mother’s sister in another town (her mum thought it was too confronting to stay at home, near where the abuse happened), attending a new school, and trying to move on with her childhood.
"I hope to become a soldier or a nurse," says Rose. "I don’t ever want to get married."
I ask her if she ever thinks about the other girls, the ones who, for one reason or another, still don’t manage to escape child marriage, often with abusive husbands. She hopes more will be saved like she was, but it is hard for her to think of the lives they are forced to lead.
"It hurts me," she says simply.
*Names have been changed
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