For a country where child marriage has been illegal since 2015, Malawi has a lot of child brides.
It needed Malawi’s president Peter Mutharika to sign a constitutional amendment in April 2017 to bring the constitution and the law in line with each other.
But anyone hoping for rapid change need only consider that the legal age of marriage was changed to 18 in 2015 under the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act and that since then there have been no reports of any prosecutions. With 85 per cent of the population living in rural areas, where marriage tends to be an informal affair, that shows no sign of changing any time soon.
Ntonya Sande sits bolt upright on the hard wooden chair in the centre of the blue painted room next to a dirt track running through the village of Kachaso in the Nsanje district in the far south of Malawi, a district poor even by the standards of a country languishing at 16th on the United Nations’ list of least developed countries (Mozambique is at ninth, according to the 2015 UNDP Human Development Report).
She bites her lip and stares out of the window. Outside her husband Sande Chimkangu, 21, tries to distract their one year old daughter, Silika.
Ntonya Sande is 15. She was married at 13 not long after her parents’ crops were destroyed by the flooding which swamped the district in 2015.
“The floods took all our harvest,” she says. ““After that, we were fetching some firewood in the forest and selling it. Depending on what we managed to sell, we were able to buy some maize, which we would use to make porridge.
“My husband went to my home to ask for my hand in marriage. My parents were the ones who accepted. I wasn’t thinking about getting married at that age.”
Sande offered them MWK 25,000 (£26) and 50 kg of sugar. It was the first time Ntonya had met him.
“When I saw him asking for my hand, I was not all that happy because I was seeing him for the first time.
“I tried to negotiate, to tell my parents that I wasn’t ready, that I didn’t want to get married, but they told me that I had to because that would mean one mouth less at the table.
“I had to get married because they didn’t have enough to feed the whole family, I was sent to be married because of shortage of food in the house. Otherwise they would have waited. That’s what I believe.”
An aunt coached her in what was expected on the first night. She was quickly pregnant. Marriage did little to change her situation. She still collects firewood and describes her life as a struggle. After a while, she stops talking, and just bites her lip and looks at the floor.
Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, with a population of 17 million projected by the International Monetary Fund to hit 45 million by 2050 at the present growth rate of 2.8 per cent. It is a rate that the IMF says is unsustainable.
Bordered by Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west and Mozambique to the east and south, the landlocked state struggles with chronic malnutrition, declining soil fertility and pandemic diseases including malaria and cholera.
The majority of the population living in rural areas survive on small-scale subsistence farming, harvesting mostly maize, cotton, rice, sorghum and tobacco.
For a majority of Malawians, every day is a struggle to put food on the table; the IMF’s Economic Development Document states that 70% live below the income poverty line, and 25% lived in extreme poverty, defined as the inability to satisfy food needs. And all their efforts can all of a sudden turn to dust, in the face of the various natural hazards that frequently wreak havoc across the country, now occurring every year. The IMF warns: “Considering that a significant number of the non-poor in rural areas are highly vulnerable to weather shocks, the poverty rate is – if anything – expected to increase due to the impact of recent floods and drought.”
It was the drought in 2016 that persuaded Lucy Anusa that marriage might be the answer to her problems. She was 14, the youngest of three sisters living with their farmer parents in Namalaka near the southern end of Lake Malawi.
They were already behind on her school fees when the drought came and laid waste to their crops.
“The 2016 drought really pushed me to get married,” she says.
“I met this man who proposed to get married. I had to accept despite the fact that my parents kept telling me good things about education. But I opted for marriage given the way things were at home. I had to make the decision on my own.
“My parents weren’t happy about it. But since I had already made my decision, nobody could stop me.
“I was thinking that after getting married, I would have a happy life. But also, I was seeing some friends, who are also married, doing good. I was thinking it would happen to me as well.”
There was no ceremony. She just went off to live with the boy, who was 16. For a little while, everything was fine. Then she discovered she was pregnant.
“I had no problem with the man. We loved each other. But things changed when I got pregnant. He started having affairs outside the house. At the point, I wasn’t happy anymore.”
Now 15, she gave birth to their daughter earlier this year. Her husband threatened to bring another wife to the house unless she left, so now she is back home with her parents.
“My mother had to welcome me back. But she kept reminding me: ‘My daughter, I told you about this. You are too young for marriage. You have a lot of challenges when you go into marriage so young’.”