It is the accident of birth that too often decides a child’s fate, whether they are born in Scotland or sub-Saharan Africa, but things are changing in Malawi, writes Susan Dalgety/
Rose was a child bride. Her first child, Ibra, was born just after her 16th birthday. She gave birth to her youngest, Lizaveta, nine months ago.
Her shockingly gaunt face, a visible reminder of her HIV status, first detected when she was pregnant with Ibra, lights up as she grins broadly. “She is the last, no more, no more,” she tells me as we chat on the steps of the local primary school.
Rose is also the chairperson of her local HIV/AIDS support group, around 20 village women who meet together once a week or so to offer each other mutual support. She dreams of building a herb garden where she and her friends can grow plants they can sell to improve their diet. “We need good food to make the ARVs [antiretroviral drugs] work,” she explains.
And she dreams, too, of a better future for Lizaveta. “She is free of the disease,” she says. “When she was born she was given a special drug and the tests so far show she is negative.
“I want her to go to a good school, to learn. Do you want to take her back to your country?” she asks me suddenly, only half laughing.
Our eyes meet, and for a split-second I thought of reaching out and cradling grinning Lizaveta in my arms. But my Madonna-complex faded as quickly as it had appeared.
“She is happier with her family,” I say, and Rose smiles.
Malawi has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. Research published by the Ministry of Gender in 2016 shows that nearly half (47 per cent) of girls marry before they are 18. Typically, the girls give birth around a year after they marry, as Rose did.
There are many reasons why girls marry young, just as they did in our society until relatively recently. Poverty is the overriding factor.
Some families, particularly in the rural areas where the majority of the population live, regard early marriage as a pragmatic way to improve their household income, through the payment of a dowry.
Girls who drop out of school early because they are needed to help at home, or because their education is not seen as important as that of their brothers, are more likely to marry young.
There are deep-rooted cultural reasons too. In the south of the country, where Rose lives, tradition demands that a girl who becomes pregnant must marry to avoid bringing shame on her family.
The government of Malawi does all it can within its limited resources to discourage child marriage, but the country’s GDP is the same size as that of Inverness. Its population is approaching 18 million.
The 2015 Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act raised the legal age of marriage to 18, and two years ago parliament amended the constitution to close a legal loophole that allowed girls between 15 and 18 years to marry with their parents’ permission.
The challenge now lies in transforming the law into change on the ground. Parliamentarians, whether in Lilongwe or Edinburgh, often boast of their prowess at passing good laws, but legislation has no impact beyond a handful of headlines if it cannot be brought to life.
Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement during her North America tour earlier this week that the Scottish Government will fund a new pilot project to help reduce rates of early and child marriage in rural areas of Malawi is to be warmly welcomed.
“Progressing gender equality supports a basic human right and will help people flourish and reach their full potential, which will ultimately create a wealthier and fairer society,” the First Minister said.
I have no truck with those Scots who shriek that the Scottish Government should not spend any of our resources abroad. Scotland’s small contribution to development in low-income countries does make a difference.
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And in this global economy, where even Rose has a basic Chinese smartphone and is on WhatsApp, our lives are more intertwined than ever. We will all benefit if baby Lizaveta and the 2,000 babies born each day in Malawi grow up to be strong, healthy, educated women.
Even a very modest investment can have a significant impact as I was to discover. Two days after I met with Rose, I listened to 20-year-old Dorothy tell her harrowing story. Cradling her baby girl, Lerato, she spoke, haltingly, about being the victim of a trafficking gang.
Last year she was duped by a “labour agency” in Malawi into handing over her family’s life savings – around £300 – on the promise of a new life in Canada as a housemaid.
It was only when she and her two companions arrived in Nairobi airport that they realised their next stop was not Toronto but Iraq. She had been sold into slavery.
She looks down as she explains how, after several weeks of hard labour, one of the stolen girls managed to escape, and alerted the local police. Dorothy, by now pregnant, was put on a plane to South Africa, and from there, home to Lilongwe.
She joined a pioneering programme, run by Scottish charity Chance 4 Change, which helps teenage girls at risk. It was funded by former First Minister Jack McConnell’s foundation, and offers young women a fresh start in life. The project has already won an international award for its work with girls, some as young as ten, who are trafficked for sex or, like Dorothy, sold into slavery.
“Everyone here looks after me,” says Dorothy quietly.
“I can bake now and am getting better at it. I want to sell my cakes and bread, so I can look after my baby girl. I am happy. I am home.”
As I get ready to leave Malawi, I will carry with me the stories of those two young women, Rose and Dorothy, and their baby daughters.
I too was a teenage mother, at a time when Scottish society still frowned on single parents, particularly those from modest backgrounds.
But I live in a rich country, and with support from my family and the state, I survived, and my son flourished. It is the accident of their birthplace that too often decides a child’s fate, whether in Scotland or sub-Saharan Africa.
The rural villages and townships of Malawi are full of bright girls who, with the right support, could be the country’s next generation of doctors, teachers, or engineers.
Without it, they will be child brides, or worse, and the world will be that much poorer for the loss of all that human potential.