16 days of activism: learners not brides

16 days of activism is an annual campaign running from November 25 to December 10 that focuses on ending violence against women and girls globally. It aims to raise awareness of the human rights violations suffered by women and girls around the world. To mark this initiative we’re focusing on the progress being made in Malawi to empower young women and girls through education.

Daliyesi’s story

Daliyesi Mozhent, a 14-year-old student from Dinyero village in southern Malawi, was on the verge of marrying a 19-year-old from a nearby village when her school’s “fathers’ group” stepped in.

The group first approached the parents of both teenagers. Failing to change their minds, the fathers went to local authorities, citing the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act. Only seven months old, the historic act establishes 18 as the minimum age for marriage—a major achievement in a country where half of all girls traditionally would be married by 18, and one in eight has married by 15.

The police and child protection workers jumped into the fray. The parents of both teenagers were forced to call off the marriage and fined two goats per family under local laws. Best of all, Daliyesi stayed in school, completed fifth grade and moved on to sixth. Lenason says:

As a fathers’ group, we work to protect and rescue vulnerable children, especially girls, from harmful cultural practices including early or forced marriages… We have had some success and we are working hard on it. A literate generation will benefit the entire community.

The importance of fathers’ groups

Malawi ranks 174 out of 187 countries on the Gender Development Index, according to the 2014 Human Development Report. On average, most girls in Malawi receive only three years of education. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report noted that girls who married early reported facing difficulties in finding school fees and accessing flexible school programmes. The Marriage Act, while important for addressing gender inequality, is only one of the needed steps.

Concern Worldwide focuses on school-related gender-based violence though the safe-learning component of its education programme. Through a 2012–2015 grant from the United Nations Trust Fund to end violence against women, Concern implemented a programme in Nsanje District, among the poorest in the country, to support girls’ access to quality education and address gender issues.

The programme entailed three major features:

  • Providing a safe learning environment for some 12,000 girls in 17 primary schools in Nsanje
  • Empowering stakeholders with greater capacity to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in schools and communities
  • Working with local and national authorities to strengthening the implementation of national commitments to address school-related gender-based violence

Through this programme, school authorities monitored girls’ attendance and instances of corporal punishment and harassment. Teachers and community leaders, including police and health officials, received training on child protection matters. Male students, fathers and community elders met to explore issues of masculinity and gender equality. Out of this the fathers’ group that Dinyero chairs was born.

Student voices strengthened

Student councils were also established at all 17 schools to serve as the voice of students and engage with school officials. Working with the group Theatre for a Change, the councils helped bring skits and games into the schools to address issues of gender-based violence, positive discipline and child protection.

During the programme, greater school attendance and retention for girls was reported, as well as a decline in violence and in the percentage of students and teachers who believed physical punishment was acceptable for disciplining learners.

Small steps

Nonetheless, changing behaviours, attitudes and norms on gender issues requires more time. Violence against both boys and girls in Nsanje remains pervasive, and girls continue to report considerable pressure to leave school and marry early.

The unanimous parliamentary approval and subsequent signing of the Marriage Act into law in April was a powerful victory, culminating years of advocacy. However, the ultimate success of the new law will lie in the political will and courage to enforce its provisions.

In depth

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