Ntakataka, Malawi (dpa) – When 17-year-old Nomsa Nkosana talks about the annulment of her marriage, she sheds tears of joy.
“Despite the hell I went through when my parents forced me into marriage, I am excited that I am back at secondary school,” says the Malawian girl, who lives in Ntakataka, in Dedza district in a central region of the.
Nomsa wed a 30-year-old shop owner when she was only 15.
“Much as my parents insisted that marriage was a solution to poverty, I never experienced any happiness at all. My husband used to beat me for petty reasons. I almost died when giving birth at age 16. I bled profusely.”
Nomsa’s life changed eight months later, when she was returning from a health centre with her baby strapped to her back.
Malawi has about 30 women, out of a total of 260 chiefs, who handle matters related to customary law and assist local officials.
“Where is the mother of the baby?” Kachindamoto asked Nomsa. When she heard that the girl herself was the mother, she immediately moved to annul the marriage.
Nomsa’s parents were ordered to sell the three cows they had received as a dowry and to use the money to pay the girl’s school fees so she could continue her education. Nomsa now wants to become a nurse.
Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. One in two girls marries before she is 18 years old, according to figures quoted by the UN.
While the overwhelming majority of Malawian children who marry are female, some boys wed as well, according to the National Youth Council.
Legislation adopted in 2015 raised the legal marriage age from 16 to 18.
Some of Malawi’s child brides are reported to have wed at only 9 years old, and some girls marry men with other wives.
Analysts attribute the large number of child marriages mainly to poverty, which encourages parents to marry off their daughters in order to obtain dowries and no longer have to support them.
Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, with the World Bank classifying more than half the country’s 16 million people as poor.
Early marriages are also seen as a way of preventing pregnancies out of wedlock – a common problem in the country, where poverty drives girls into relationships with older men who may have some wealth.
Such marriages are one of the main factors that prevent girls from getting an education. In Malawi, only 45 per cent of girls enroll in secondary school, according to statistics quoted by the Nyasa Times.
Some of Malawi’s chiefs – male and female – have moved against child marriage.
“I saw my friends who were forced into marriage at a young age languishing in poverty,” says Kachindamoto, 58, who was elected chief by local dignitaries in 2003.
As custodians of culture, chiefs have the power to regulate customary marriages, and Kachindamoto says she has annulled 850 unions involving children in three years.
“My experience of dropping out of school in grade two and being married off by my grandmother at age 14 gave me the impetus to fight the malpractice,” says Chalendo MacDonald Mwanza, 63, a female chief from central Salima district.
The government, the UN and non-governmental organizations have joined forces with chiefs to lobby against child marriages, Information Minister Patricia Kaliati told dpa.
Many churches are also refusing to perform wedding ceremonies for children, Kaliati said. She said the efforts have led to 600,000 marriages involving children being annulled over the past two years.
Not everyone is happy with such developments. One man whose marriage was dissolved by Kachindamoto calls her “a cultural misfit.”
“The spirits of our great patriarchs … are angry with what is happening among us. How can the warrior tribe of the Maseko Ngoni [numbering about 800,000] allow a woman to be … chief?” complains the man, who does not want his name published.
To such critics, Kachindamoto responds that the local dignitaries who picked her understood that times have changed.
After three of her subordinate chiefs failed to obey her orders to dissolve marriages involving children, she sacked them.
“I only reinstated them later, when they annulled the child marriages and paid a fine of two goats each,” Kachindamoto said.