Daughters for loan under fire

Linked with Pilirani Semu-Banda – Malawi, and with The Gender and Media Project.

Published on SARDC South African Research & Documentation Centre, by Pilirani Semu-Banda, The Nation, a 23 July, year not named.

It is official. There is gross abuse of children’s rights in Karonga. Parents are indeed forcing their daughters, as young as 12, to marry elderly men in exchange for food, cattle or money loaned to them.

The issue, which first cropped up last November as a mere rumour at a meeting for the Women’s Guild of the Livingstonia Synod of the CCAP in Iponga area, has been confirmed.

Even the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), a body mandated by the Constitution to protect and investigate violations of human rights, has conducted its own investigations and it has found out that the practice is flourishing in the area.

Imagine a young girl being forced to have sex with an elderly person in the presence of her relations after she has resisted the man’s attempts on several occasions. Ironically, parents to girls undergoing such kind of abuse think the practice is “just normal and a mere tradition” and they do not even want to talk about what is happening to any outsider.

The victims of the practice are actually hidden if there are newcomers in the vicinity.

But maybe the parents are not totally to blame for this because some indications show that there are times when the parents do not have a choice but to marry off their young daughters after failing to pay back loans they owe to some elderly but well-to-do men.

For fear of being ridiculed and facing the wrath of the creditor, the parents end up surrendering their daughter. Vikiness Nakitamula Ngana, an aunt to one of the victims, revealed that this practice is an old tradition that has resurfaced in the last two years.”The tradition has resurfaced due to the devastating hunger that has ravaged these areas,” said Ngana.

She said this practice, locally known as “kupimbira”, is popular among the Nyakyusa and Ngonde especially in the areas from Ngerenge to the Songwe Border and from Misuku Hills in Chitipa to the source of Lake Malawi in the East.

As if the practice itself is not terrible enough, girls who resist these forced marital practices are threatened with death or a magical curse, which is referred to as Chighune”.

The worst case is where a man in Iponga has created a harem consisting of up to 14 such young girls through the practice.

Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) Principal Investigations Officer Harry Kambwembwe said in a report he wrote after investigating the issue in Karonga that the girls are subjected to a slave-like practice where they literally have no control or say over their destiny and sexual life.

“This is a very archaic and inhuman practice that should not be tolerated in this democratic dispensation,” said Kambwembwe. He said the area concerned is remote with little or no communication where people do not read newspaper and have no access to radio or television and that as such, require on site campaigns.

“In designing intervention programmes in the area, language choice is very critical because most of the people are not conversant with either English or Chichewa which are the official languages in the country,” said the investigator.

People in the area speak Ngonde which is only concentrated there.

But what is being done to address this problem?

MHRC Executive Secretary Emiliana Tembo said in an interview her organisation is lining up civic education strategies to sensitise people in the area that the practice is an abuse of the children’s rights.

She said after the civic education process, a monitoring committee comprising of residents in the area will be set up to
ensure that it comes to a stop. “In fact after the civic education process we will start taking legal action against any perpetrators of this practice,” said Tembo.

However, the fate of the girls who are already in the hands of the sugar daddies seem to be sealed because Tembo said her commission does not have any ways of rescuing them. “We don’t have any place where we can keep them. If we take them out of their so called marriages we will end up turning them into destitutes,” said Tembo.

Livingstonia Synod’s Church and Society Programme Director Moses Mkandawire, whose church members were the first to talk about the practice, said in an another interview his organisation has already started conducting civic education programmes in the area.

“We are also putting up posters in the area depicting the dangers of the practice such as HIV/Aids,” said Mkandawire.

Unfortunately, this is not the only bad cultural practice in the area since another bad sexual practice known as Kuhaha or Kuhara where a brother of a deceased man takes over the wife is practised.

This means that the human rights organisations have a lot to do to redeem the people in the area from the bad, immoral and dangerous sexual practices otherwise people in the area will continue violating the Constitution which specifies in Section 22 that no person shall be forced to enter into marriage and that the state shall actually discourage marriage between persons where either of them is under the age of fifteen years. – This article can be reproduced with credit to the author and publisher.

The Nation – 23 July, no year named.

(The production of this article was made possible with support from SARDC’s Small Grant on Gender Reporting in Southern Africa. In 2003 SARDC-WIDSAA offered small grants to enable Journalists to research and write articles that reflect the range of perspectives related to gender policies and their effect among communities, the rural poor, and governments in the region. The grant is part of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency’s (SIDA) support to WIDSAA).

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