It’s a hot and sunny afternoon when Chief Kapoloma visits the home of teenage Fatima and her mother in Aisa village, Machinga district. He strides across the baked earth of a dried-out river bed, wearing a traditional robe and circular hat over smart shirt and trousers. The area is predominantly Muslim and there is a small brick mosque among the houses, adorned with a white star and crescent on the minaret. A cockerel calls out from a straw enclosure behind one of the mud brick houses.
Also known as a Traditional Authority (TA), the Chief’s solemn expression hints at the seriousness of his mission: saving girls from child marriage. He is determined to use his influence to improve the lives of adolescents in his community, by ensuring that they get an education. In his area, he has already ended over 30 child marriages and returned the children affected to school.
“It’s a fact that education is key to one’s success,” he says. “I am trying to bring the young people back to school. To do this, for girls in particular, I am also trying to end all child marriages under the age of 18.”
There is evidence that the Chief’s approach is working. “There has been a tremendous improvement in this area,” he says. “In the past, we used to have 10 to 15 cases of child marriage per year. But in 2017, we only had two. This is a good development, although I would ultimately like to get it to zero.”
Sixteen-year-old Fatima Lameck is one of the girls saved from child marriage by Chief Kapoloma. He has come to her home to check on her progress. She sits with her mother and six-month-old daughter on a mat outside their house, in the shade of a tree.
Fatima was staying with relatives in Blantyre when she got pregnant. She was persuaded into marriage as a way to support the child. But her husband was not able to provide for the family. When Chief Kapoloma found out, he intervened with the family. Realizing that the marriage was not a solution to poverty, the family agreed to have it annulled. Fatima returned home with her child to live with her mother.
“It was an issue of peer pressure,” Fatima says. “My friends had boyfriends and I didn’t want to be left out. So I found a man. Later, I fell pregnant and decided to get married. But the Chief convinced me to go back to school.”
Fatima is now back at Mpiri Community Day Secondary School, in Form 3. “At first I thought it was a good thing to get married,” she continues. “But when the Chief told me about the importance of education, I understood him and decided to go back to school. I’m happy that I’m back home and going to school.”
Passion for education
For Chief Kapoloma, whose family name is Ahammad Gowelo, his drive and passion for education is intrinsically linked with his own personal story. “I was born along the lake shores. I used to stay with my uncle, who was a driver to a German,” he recalls. “I used to play together with his son, who was the same age as me.”
The German family left Malawi in 1964, after independence, and offered to take the young Ahammad with them, giving him the opportunity to study overseas. But his father was opposed to secular education, and prevented the move.
“My father didn’t want me to go to school, so I would run away to attend classes,” he says. “I had the chance to study in Germany but my father cancelled the trip when I was at the airport. This was the most painful moment in my life because I wanted to go to school so much. Even now, I still regret that I missed that chance to get a proper education.”
Although Ahammad managed to get a basic education, he says it still breaks his heart to see young people getting married at a young age. He blames child marriage for a decline in education standards in his district, which he says has robbed his Yao tribe of its chance to contribute to the development of Malawi. “It is a source of pain for me that the Yao tribe has become known for illiteracy,” he says.
Advocating for change
UNICEF is working to bring an end to child marriage throughout Malawi. According to the Demographic and Health Survey 2015, almost one in two girls in Malawi (47 per cent) were married before the age of 18. In early 2017, a coalition of UN agencies and NGOs was instrumental in supporting the Government to change the Constitution to raise the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18 years of age, for both girls and boys.
Since then, UNICEF’s work has focused on ensuring that this political change is implemented on the ground. This includes working with religious groups to identify and annul child marriages, and with local leaders like TA Kapoloma and communities to equip girls and boys with knowledge and skills to reduce the risk of child marriage.
“Child marriage is a violation of children’s rights,” UNICEF Malawi Chief of Child Protection Afrooz Kaviani Johnson says. “It puts girls at greater risk of domestic violence and potential life-threatening health consequences of early pregnancy. They often drop out of school, limiting their education and career prospects.”
“There are already many champions in Malawi, working in their communities to end this damaging practice,” she continues. “We want to amplify their voices so that they can be an inspiration to others.”
In Malawi, traditional chiefs like TA Kapoloma develop local decrees for their areas. To build support for his drive to end child marriage, the Chief consulted widely with other chiefs, including village headmen under his jurisdiction, and the police. They came up with revised local rules that emphasise parents’ responsibility to send their children to school.
“After engaging the other chiefs and communities, we created a new decree,” he explains. “This includes punitive measures towards men who engage in immoral behavior by marrying under aged girls. In these cases, we will take them to court.”
“There are committees within each village who check if the rules are being abided to,” he continues. “If they see a child not going to school, they report this to their chief. If the chief fails to negotiate with the parents to send their children to school, then the issue is brought to me for a final resolution.”
There are still challenges. In particular, he highlights the need for financial support for families like Fatima’s, who take their daughters out of child marriage but then struggle to pay school fees on their own.
For Chief Kapoloma, ending child marriage is just the first step on a journey to improve his community. “My ambition is to see young people in this area dream big and explore the opportunities that education can offer,” he says. “I want to be known as a chief who changed things for the better.”
This story first appeared in the Sunday Times.