Salome is happy to be back at school Picture: Tearfund/Chris Hoskins
By Jen Clark
For many generations in Karonga in the north of Malawi, childhood marriage has been a cultural norm.
Girls, sometimes as young as six, are groomed for the purpose of marriage and are often forced by family members to drop out of school in order to take up their new roles as wives and mothers.
In many cases they find themselves married to men who are decades older than they are.
But a project by the charity Tearfund in the district is overcoming cultural barriers to education and radically transforming attitudes and practices that leave girls without hope of a brighter future.
Salome Mbughi, who is 20, is just one of the girls who has been supported by the project.
At the age of 15, her parents gave her to a 29-year-old man who was labouring at their house and who already had two wives.
She said “It was the intention of my parents that they get a man for me. It was a deliberate move that they found this man.
Salome with her school friends Picture: Tearfund/Chris Hoskins
"They arranged that every night he would come and sleep in my room with me without my consent. I wakened up and the man grabbed me and started doing sex with me.
"I wanted to shout but the man closed my mouth. The next day he went away. My father knew he had been in the house because it was arranged. My parents needed this man to marry me.”
After pleading with her parents for two months for this to stop, Salome soon found she was pregnant and was forced to drop out of school to live with her new husband, who became increasingly violent.
“When I was taken to the man’s house I was weeping daily," she said. "He used to beat me and the other wives were abusing me. They said “We don’t want you here. You are young. Why are you with my husband?
“I felt like committing suicide. I was young and I had an old husband. He was always forcing me to sleep with him.
"I was always crying and feeling pain. I was very much depressed. I was a virgin and he destroyed my virginity.”
But thanks to a group of community volunteers in what are known locally as Mother and Father groups, Salome was able to find a way out.
Mother and Father group members regularly check the school attendance register Picture: Tearfund/Chris Hoskins
Tearfund’s project, which has received funding from the Scottish Government, is working through its partner organisation LISAP to drive down child marriage and increase access to education.
When Salome contacted the Mother and Father group, they counselled her parents and made her husband pay a fine and agree to allow her to leave and go back to school.
The groups are accustomed to taking on the role of surrogate parents so that they can educate families, manage conflict and speak up for girls who feel unable to challenge the status quo.
Benson Masumgwa, from Kalembo Mother and Father group, was one of the first in his community to take a stand for Salome.
He said “ I played a large role in identifying the child. When I heard she was married, I counselled Salome about the importance of education and then I counselled the parents. It was a long process but eventually the parents agreed she had to go back to school.
“I went to the headmaster to get him to agree to have her readmitted to school. With Salome’s family there was resistance in the beginning. It took more than a year until they would trust and accept me.”
The groups are not only working with individual cases but influencing entire communities through a set of by-laws to penalise men who insist on marrying children or parents who refuse to send their children to school.
Salome at home with her mother and father and her son Andrew Picture: Tearfund/Chris Hoskins
The initiative has received the backing of community leaders and teachers, and is increasingly gaining wider support on the ground.
Members of the group, who act on a voluntary basis, work closely with schools, checking attendance registers and identifying young girls who are regularly missing lessons.
Pupils are strongly advised to get involved in Life Skills Clubs, teaching them how to make informed decisions and stand up for their rights.
Salome said: “There was a certain girl I shared my story with. She said about this group called a Mother and Father group at her school.
"She said she thought they would be able to assist me. So I went to the group for support and my friend came with me.
“They started counselling my parents. At first my parents refused but after some time, slowly they understood.
"They also went to discuss with my husband, telling him that he had done wrong to marry a young girl. They told him to pay a fine and that I would have to go back to school.
Happy Salome plays with her five-year-old son Andrew Picture: Tearfund/Chris Hoskins
“I was taken back to the house of my parents. Then I went back to school.”
Salome’s father Heckings now regrets the path he chose for his daughter.
He said: “In this culture, the parents can arrange the marriage for the children. The parents get cattle and the boy and girl get married. it’s the exchange of a girl for a cow.
“Because of the Mother and Father group telling us about the by-laws and the importance of education, it has changed us and the entire community.
“I arranged the marriage for Salome because this man was very important to me. He was assisting me and it was important for me that Salome get married to him.
"But then the Mother and Father group came to counsel me. They played a great role in her life.
"They said ‘The girl is very young. She should not get married. She should go to school.’
Salome with Benson Masumgwa from the Mother and Father group Picture: Tearfund/Chris Hoskins
“It took me four years to understand from the group that it is very important that my child goes to school. She dropped out of school for four years.
“At first it was normal to me because of the culture but now she has come back here, I know to do things differently. Now I have realised that to educate a girl child is important.
“The group was not angry when they came to us. We sat down together and they started sharing.
"They have done a great role, not only to us, but to the entire family. They teach the whole family about the importance of education.
“The things that happened to Salome will not happen to anyone else in this family. She is the role model for our household.
“I tell other fathers about our experience and what I have learned. It is my role to talk to them and they hear what I teach them very much.
"At this time I am very happy that I have been transformed. I am seeing a very good future for Salome.”
Chiefs show the community's child marriage by-laws Picture: Tearfund/Chris Hoskins
Although back in the family home, settled in school and building bridges with her parents, Salome is also still receiving the support of her Mother and Father group.
She now enjoys school, plays netball, reads books and spends time with her friends.
Her parents are currently supporting her by paying for her school materials, encouraging her with her homework and looking after her five-year old son Andrew while she studies.
But all she has been through still makes life difficult.
“I regret to be a mother at this age," said Salmoe. "I always thank the group because they are the ones who rescued me.
"They still continue to encourage me. They say 'Even though you are a mother, this is not the end of your life. You will be independent and you’ll start working'.
“My parents say they have accepted they did wrong and they will raise me until I get educated.
“I wanted to commit suicide when I was with the man. But now I am really happy because I have a place at secondary school and I can become a nurse to help people. I want to be a role model in this community.”