To kick-start the 16 Days of Activism to combat gender-based violence, the boys at Chilanga Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in Kasungu are setting the pace for male involvement in creating a safer world for girls and women.

To Isaac Mzembe, child marriage in Malawi constitutes the most horrible but widely tolerated form of sexual violence against girls. Nearly half of Malawian girls marry before their 18th birthday and the burden is high in rural areas.

“Poverty, indifference and culture disproportionately put schoolgirls at risk of marrying young,” he explains. “As crop yields fall due to climate change and barren soils, parents often have to choose between educating a girl or a boy. Unfortunately, many families prefer keeping boys in school. Sometimes, girls are compelled to marry men over twice their age.”

Mzembe wants an end to rights violations normalised by the outlawed marriages involving boys and girls aged below 18.

To him, lax enforcement of the constitutional stipulations against child marriages means “girls continue to be defiled in the name of love.

“Girls face numerous rights abuses that push them out of school, limiting their potential. However, child marriage is a rampant form of sexual violence. We must confront this, and men and boys must jump to the front,” he says.

Mzembe, a Form Four student at Chilanga CDSS, leads a boys club confronting attacks on girls’ rights both in school and surrounding communities.

The boys championing the push to ensure no girl below 18 quits school for marriage are worried that most abuses are either orchestrated or permitted by people the victims trust and those who are supposed to protect them.

“We meet our schoolmates to explain girls’ rights, the importance of keeping girls in school and the dangers of marrying young. When a girl is in danger of dropping out, we go to her home and chat with her and the parents to understand their problems so that she can remain in school.

“We also talk to fellow boys who are the potential abusers. We need to change the way we perceive girls. We want to create a generation that respects girls rights,” he says.

The male champions club was formed with support from Oxfam Malawi to ensure every girl learns. Oxfam, with funding from the European Union, also provides school fees, uniforms and other basics to 203 vulnerable learners at Chilanga.

Chilanga head teacher Mervyn Chilongo salutes the boys club and bursaries for reducing dropout, teen pregnancy and child marriage rates among girls hit hard by poverty made worse by climate change.

“Previously, we used to enrol fewer girls and many used to quit. For teachers, it pains when a student quits school due to marriage, pregnancy or failure to pay fees. Nowadays, only one or no drop out all year,”

Chilongo calls for greater male involvement in safeguarding girls and women.

He commends the young male champions are breaking the mould, saying: “The enrolment, retention and performance of girls is improving.

“Even the ties between boys and girls are getting stronger. A tenth of those receiving the bursaries from Oxfam are boys. We don’t want to leave anyone behind. When boys are excluded from girls’ empowerment intervention, they become distracters. We are happy that our students are working together to create a safer place for all.”

The United Nations Children Funds (Unicef) reports that one in five girls in Malawi suffers sexual violence, as does one in seven boys.

According to the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, 47 percent of women marry before the age of 18.

Four years ago, Jessie Nkhoma, Chilanga CDSS head girl, contemplated marrying because her parents, who grow maize and tobacco on a degraded plot the size of two football fields, could not pay her school fees. Now, she is on the Oxfam bursary.

She narrates: “I was brought up in a family that depends on farming. Due to climate change and barren soils, yields are falling, and it is difficult to meet our basic needs. When I was in Form One, the headteacher threw me out of school several times. My parents couldn’t afford fees.

“Once, I was tempted to find a well-off man to marry me. But my mother told me marriage is not where a girl can get basic needs. It only makes poverty worse. After all, marrying before 18 is a crime. It shouldn’t happen.”

Jessie hails the male champions for working closely with mothers’ groups and concerned girls to combat all forms of sexual abuse.

“Some parents force girls to marry because they don’t appreciate the benefits of education. They need awareness. My friend quit school aged 14 and her parents married her off. Every time she is in trouble, she blames it on her parents,” she says.

During the International Conference on Population and Development in Kenya last week, Minister of Health Jappie Mhango unveiled Malawi’s “commitment to end child marriage by 2030”.

This is good news to Jessy and Isaac. In September, Oxfam flew them to London to lobby for more funding to ensure every child gets quality, life-long education in line with Sustainable Development Goal number four.

Jessie wishes every school had a boy’s movement and bursaries for poor children as is the case at Chilanga because “we cannot eliminate sexual violence if we don’t team up to do good”.

“The boys are doing a tremendous job to persuade their peers to keep their hands off girls both in and out of school. This has helped reduce dropout rates, discrimination, sexual harassment and teen pregnancy. More and more boys now respect girls’ rights. They are creating a safe environment where boys know we are all equal.”

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