By Dyson Mthawanji | 12 June 13
"My mother forced me into early marriage. She did it so my husband could help her with salt and sugar. During the marriage, my husband frequently beat me. My mother always said I had to get used to that pain because that's what marriage means," recalls 15-year-old Lucy.*
Lucy's husband not only abused her, but also forced her into agricultural labour. "My husband was forcing me to do work on farms to raise money for the family. Every day I spent the whole day at the farm working," laments Lucy.
Lucy's experience not only highlights the widespread cases of child marriage in Malawi, but also the on-going problem of child labour. These two practices are, in some cases mutually reinforcing and disempower women and girls in similar ways, by denying children an education and creating a vicious cycle of inequality.
In Malawi 60% of girls aged between 13 and 18 are married. The Mpherembe district in Mzimba has the highest number of child labour and child marriage cases. This has recently prompted officials from the Zima Social Welfare Office to hold this year's Day of African Child commemoration in the Mpherembe.
"We have chosen Mpherembe because the area registers high cases of child labour and abuse through early marriages. We want to eliminate all harmful practices once and for all," explained Social Welfare Officer Zindaba Lungu.
Joyce Mkandawire, Communications Advisor at Girls Empowerment Network- Malawi (GENET), agrees that there is a link between child marriage and child labour. "Girls who are in early marriages can't make their own decisions so they listen and do whatever the husband orders them to do. They are forced to do work...and employers pay them little money on the basis that they are children," explains Mkandawire.
Child labour and child marriage are practices prevalent across the SADC region and beyond. Girls throughout SADC remain vulnerable to harmful cultural attitudes and practices that leave them at risk to violence and sexual exploitation, with no say over their bodies and futures.
According to the latest International Labour Organisation's Global Report, in Southern and Eastern Africa, 36% of all children between the ages of five and 14 years old are involved in child labour, with most working in domestic and agricultural sectors. This is the highest proportion of children involved in child labour in the world.
The report shows a decrease in girls involved in child labour but these is an increase in boys. Although boys are at a greater risk of hazardous forms of child labour, girls are most vulnerable to unpaid, domestic labour and commercial sexual exploitation. These are forms of child labour that happen behind closed doors, making them less easy to monitor and regulate.
Anti-Child Labour Programme Coordinator for Activists Networking Against the Exploitation of Children (ANEX), Doreen Gaura, says there is a great link between child marriages, child labour and child trafficking, especially in cases of forced marriages.
Gaura explains that in the Eastern Cape in South Africa the manipulation of a practice called Ukuthwala, where families are selling their daughters, as young as 12-years-old, to men often much older than the girls. These men remove the girls from their homes, often physically and sexually exploit them and force them to perform domestic work or labour outside the home.
"The reality of girl child labourers is very reflective of the reality of women workers as they are more likely to be paid less or not paid at all. Due to long existing harmful gender stereotypes in communities...girls are likely to fall into domestic work, usually isolated in households so they face a high risk of abuse, and generally limited access to educational opportunities," says Gaura.
In Malawi, NGOs are intensifying efforts to protect girls, with many focusing on sensitising families, so parents do not view the girl child as a commodity but instead prioritise her education. GENET is working with chiefs in the Chiradzulu district and Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) has established seven resource centres where girls have access to information and support.
Malawi's NGO Gender Coordinating Network (NGOGCN) has a permanent Child Rights Committee. "We are working with communities to ensure that girls are not entering into early marriages and exposed to child labour. We want girls to be in school," explains Emma Kaliya, NGOGCN Chairperson.
As we commemorate International Day Against Child Labour, we must remember that gender inequality perpetuates child marriage and child labour among girls. In turn, these practices worsen gender inequality by exploiting girls and robbing them of an education.
Malawi and other SADC states must pay due attention to the SADC Code of conduct on Child Labour and align legislation the age of marriage with other instruments such as the SADC Gender and development Protocol and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children (UNCRC) which defines a child as anybody below the age of 18.
We will only achieve women's emancipation and gender equality when societies no longer force girls into marriage and labour, but instead educate, economically empower and afford girls the rights over their bodies and futures.
*Not her real name.
Dyson Mthawanji is a third year Journalism student at Malawi Polytechnic, a constituent college of University of Malawi. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.