In Malawi, the impact of COVID-19 will affect young girls more than any other group. According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Malawi has already seen a surge in child marriages since the pandemic started.
Through marriage, families can receive a dowry or lobola to help alleviate financial strain. Because this is normally paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family, it is daughters that are often asked to leave their homes and enter marriage.
With many families facing extreme financial hardship due to COVID-19, this is often the result of very few alternatives. While a 2017 constitutional amendment raised the legal marriage age to 18 for both boys and girls in Malawi, a 2019 report from UNICEF said 46% of girls are married before 18. Once married, their education almost always stops.
These are precisely the difficulties that the Mlambe team are discovering local families are facing. Following a meeting last Thursday with local healthcare professionals and community leaders, our Building Projects Manager Steven Kambalame reports that “during the close of the school due to coronavirus, [child] marriages are taking place [and] many girls have become pregnant following the close of school.”
Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to Malawi
Room to Read, a charity that focuses on gender equality and education, recently conducted a survey that produced distressing results. It revealed that child marriage is expected to increase by 4 million globally, and that only 1 in 2 girls from low-income communities will go back to school. This is a direct result of the continuous financial strain that Coronavirus is putting on families.
The survey was taken of 24,000 girls from low-income countries, who were aged between 15 and 19 years old. They were from eight countries including India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Tanzania and Bangladesh. Other findings from this survey also align with what many Malawian girls are facing right now. These include high expectations to stay at home and help with housework, and pressures to enter the workforce through child labour.
In a statement made to The Independent, Heather Simpson of Room to Read, points out that substantial progress has been made in supporting girls in low-income communities in recent years, but progress towards reaching gender equality “could be set back decades” by COVID-19.
The Mlambe Project has always recognised that girls in Malawi face more challenges in their access to education than boys do. We have been conscious to construct safer school environments for girls, by building toilets and recognising their cultural needs. We are currently constructing a set of toilet blocks in Nankhono Primary School for this reason, where last year we constructed two classrooms and increased school capacity by 240 students.
As our CEO Ed remarks, “At The Mlambe Project, we are proud of the work we have done in increasing access to education through building classroom blocks and teachers’ accommodation in rural Malawi. We have also undertaken projects that improve things for activities that are traditionally conducted by women, such as training a group of women trainers in the construction of kitchen stoves that reduces the requirement of wood, usually collected by children and women, by up to two thirds through more efficient combustion. We also know that there is more we can and must do to ensure equal conditions for girls, so gender equality is a central theme in our upcoming medium term strategy sessions”.
As Michelle Obama once said, ‘when girls are educated, their countries become stronger and more prosperous’. To support Malawi right now, we must continue to support girls. We cannot provide equality and access to education for all, without doing this.
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