Why Malawi’s Commonwealth ambassador started Standard 8 at 29

Karonga: It all started in 1990 when she lost her parents and moved to stay with an elderly poverty-stricken cousin who could not manage to support her education.

Born in 1979 in Masoko Village in the area of Paramount Chief Kyungu in Karonga District, Enala Ngulu Gondwe got married at the age of 13 to a 47-year-old polygamous man.

Since my cousin could not afford to provide me with school needs, he recommended that I get married.

I was going to school on an empty stomach. Life was really tough for me. I was, therefore, forced to get married hoping that I would ease the challenges I was facing, narrates Gondwe.

Unfortunately, the man never told me that he already had two wives. It was very difficult for me to rescind my decision considering the severity of problems at my cousin’s home, she says.

As fate would have it, her new marital home welcomed her with its own challenges.

Her polygamous husband could not manage to support three wives and 16 children.

We were struggling to find food, clothing and soap. As wives, we were just doing piecework to find food for our survival, she says.

It is against this background that in 2008, after giving birth to her sixth and last born at the age of 29, she decided to go back to school in Standard 8.

I reasoned with my husband, McWells Gondwe. Fortunately, he gave me a go-ahead and I went to enrol at Lusako Primary School where some of my daughters were learning, she says.

But when her husband’s relatives heard the news, they started discouraging him.

Some said I was going back to school to look for better men while others said I would divorce him after getting educated.

But my husband and I were not shaken, she says.

Gondwe recalls that even at school she was subjected to mockery during the first week by her fellow learners who thought she was their new female teacher.

I was insulted and mocked left, right and centre but I always put those mockeries behind me because I knew what I wanted to achieve in life.

Although I was not doing well in class, my teachers kept on encouraging me that I would pass the examinations and it really happened.

I was the only person that got selected to Chilumba Boarding Secondary School in Karonga out of 15 learners that got selected; the rest went to community day secondary schools, Gondwe says.

She recalls that though her husband, who works as Health Surveillance Assistant (HSA) allowed her to go back to school, he could not give her school fees due to his meagre salary.

Meanwhile, Gondwe attributes her success to Foundation for Community Support Service (FOCUS), an organisation that committed to sponsor her education after learning that she had gone back to Standard 8 at 29.

She says during her Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) she passed with 36 points that made her to repeat Form 4 in 2014 at Thunduti Community Day Secondary School.

Gondwe later left Thunduti with 34 points and is now doing Bachelor’s Degree in Rural Community Development at Share World Open University.

My family will always remain grateful to FOCUS for the support throughout my primary and secondary education, she says.

It is this same story that earned Gondwe the Malawi’s Commonwealth ambassador accolade.

She was identified by Commonwealth through FOCUS in 2015 during a meeting held in Malawi with Kigali Declaration

Operationalisation as the main agenda item.

The Kigali Declaration-2015 aims at strengthening efforts to prevent and eliminate child, early and forced marriages.

During the meeting, three sessions were held separately involving chiefs, boys and girls, and dropouts.

We presented testimonies on the effects of child, early and forced marriage in Malawi and my testimony was outstanding among others by over 60 participants, Gondwe says.

She adds that when the Commonwealth Secretariat team went back to London, she was identified to be a Guest Speaker alongside Senior Chief Kachindamoto of Dedza District at a similar function in Malta.

I want to give thanks to Commonwealth Secretariat for identifying me through FOCUS and choosing me as Commonwealth champion in Malawi, Gondwe says.

The champion against early and forced marriages advises young girls to stop thinking of getting married before completing their education.

There are many challenges in early marriages. Girls can contract sexually transmitted diseases which may lead to death.

They can also die during giving birth because their body parts are not mature enough, she warns.

Currently, Gondwe works with FOCUS, the same organisation that sponsored her education, as project officer for Restored Hope for Orphans and Vulnerable Children.

I’m happy that through the project, I have persuaded several girls and women to go back to school, she says.

FOCUS’ executive director Kossam Munthali describes Gondwe as an asset in changing people’s mindset especially young girls that dropout of school due to either early marriage or pregnancy.

Munthali says Gondwe is a model who is helping the country to have more future models because of what she has achieved in her life.

For example, in the just released Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education examinations Gondwe has contributed a lot.

Imagine two young women who sat for the examinations after being persuaded by her have been selected to Maghemo and Karonga Girls secondary schools, respectively, Munthali says.

According to Malawi Demographic Health Survey (DHS) of 2015-2016, Malawi is ranked 9th in the world with highest rate of child marriages for girls under 18.

Malawi has also the highest rate of the child marriages in Eastern and Southern Africa seconded by Mozambique.

The DHS also estimates that 47 percent of women marry before the age of 18 whereas 8 percent of men do so.

In 2017, Malawi Parliament amended the law which defines who a child or minor is; from 16 to 18 years, with some commentators calling it as an instrument to end child marriages in the country.

FOCUS and other stakeholder organisations have been working in Karonga District to fight the tendency of some parents and guardians to force girls into early marriages.

The tendency is influenced by cultural practices such as lobola (dowry) which require men to pay money and other valuables to parents of a girl or woman they would like to marry.

Some parents, therefore, marry off their young daughters for them to receive the dowry.

Paramount Chief Kyungu of Karonga and Chitipa says as chiefs they have geared themselves up to complement FOCUS’ efforts to stop early marriages.

Kyungu says the chiefs want to abolish any cultural practices such as Chithola minga (money charged to a man who takes a girl or woman as his wife without a wedding ceremony).

He says the practice is abused to the effect that some parents take girls as commercial property.

Why should parents be charging up to K300, 000 [about US$413] on their daughters as if it’s a business? This, on its own, is encouraging early marriages amongst us and must stop immediately, he says.

Kyungu, who is also champion for He4She Campaign in the country, says there is need for collaborated efforts in ending early marriages and pregnancies.

We have agreed as chiefs in Karonga and Chitipa to form a group of 10 chiefs each for the dissemination of the bylaws that we have made.

We have seen that collectively we can achieve our goal than working individually. We are getting more organised and we are optimistic that we will achieve our goal, Kyungu says.

Source: Malawi News Agency MANA

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