'Real Fathers' Rally Against Child Marriage

Tuesday 1 February 2022

One of the Real Fathers from Phalombe District Spending Quality Time with his daughter

Had he not been converted, James* fears what could have been for his family, especially his two daughters Jessie* and Jean*.

James is a farmer and businessman from Pangani Village in the district of Phalombe in southern Malawi.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, Malawi, like most countries in the world, quickly reacted by exerting stringent measures to curb the spread of the virus, one of which was the shutting down of schools.

With little else to do, the teenage siblings eloped, moving in with their lovers within the community.  

James confesses that he did not try to convince his daughters to delay marriage until after they finished school as “girls generally get married early” in the community.

Malawi ranks 12th highest in child, early and forced marriages across the world, with 42 percent of girls getting married before reaching the age of 18.

Phalombe, just like most parts of Malawi, is one of the districts with the highest proportion of teenagers who have started childbearing with a 48 percent rate.

Malawi’s constitution prohibits girls from marrying before the age of 18.

However, child marriages remain rampant in Malawi as most girls get married as young as 12 years of age.

But, as chance would have it, Real Fathers changed the destiny of the James family as soon as the male parent was recruited into the programme.

“I was excited when they recruited me because of my six children, the first born dropped out of school and my mission now was to find ways of rescuing the other five,” he said.

Real Fathers is a component of the broader USAID-funded Apatseni Mwai Atsikana Aphunzire (AMMA)/Let Girls Learn project that Save the Children is implementing in the districts of Phalombe and Chikwawa. It is designed to improve girls’ access to and experience of education and support the transition from primary to secondary school.

Adopting a holistic, whole-of-girl approach, AMAA sees challenges to girls completing their education as multi-faceted, interlinked and complex, and as such Save the Children developed a suite of activities which would work collaboratively at multiple levels to unblock these challenges. Real Fathers uses a mentorship approach to target the fathers of adolescent girls and encourages them to see their daughters’ capacity for educational success.

As a result of the training, and with support from community leaders, James was able to withdraw his daughters from their marriages and both of them are now back in school.

He says the project has taught him to pay more attention to his daughter’s education and to play his role as a parent.

“I’ve learnt a lot with the Real Fathers project because before this, I didn’t pay attention to my kids to know how they were performing in class. But since they have been back home, no matter how busy I am, I find time to attend to them. Previously, I thought it was just my wife’s job but I’m now taking part and it's because of this project,” he said. 

But apart from that, James noted, the biggest prize that he has gained from being a Real Father is that his daughters are back in school.

“The programme opened my eyes and helped me find ways in which I could reach out to the girls. This programme has really helped my family because both the girls are back in school and the older one is in the final year of her secondary school education,” he said.

Apart from benefitting from her father’s new-found zeal as a Real Father, his daughter Jessie is also a beneficiary of AMMA project’s holistic approach to promoting girls’ education.

“I have been a beneficiary of the AMMA bursary from the time I was in Form 1 up to now I'm in Form 4. Before my dad became a Real Father, he didn’t provide me with school necessities such as books and pens but now he does all of that and he even advises me on how I can further my education,” she said.

At her school, the AMMA project established distance learning groups where learners meet to discuss what they learned in school.

“And if there are parts that we didn’t understand, we ask teacher for help. Distance learning has helped me do well in class and it’s helping me prepare for my final exams,” she said.

Her younger sister Jean explains that her father’s changed attitude has created high expectations for her.

“Now, because he is always asking about my education, even going out of his way to ensure that I have everything I need for my schooling, it has helped me realise that there are high expectations for me and so this encourages me to go the extra mile to study hard and make my parents happy,” she said.

Jean, who is now aged 18 and aspires to be a teacher, explained that it took her father’s persuasion for her to quit her marriage and return to school.

“He enlightened me on the importance of education based on what he had learnt from the Real Fathers sessions. At the end of the day, what he said made a lot of sense and that is why I agreed to come back home and resume my education,” she said.

Real Fathers supervisor Alfred Munyonga hails the impact that the project has had in Phalombe district.

“The Real Fathers programme helps us in recognising different types of challenges that our kids face. Even in our homes, it helps us as couples to work together to prepare our children for the future. And the training has helped us a lot in our communities, especially those of us that live close to the lake where kids usually drop out of school,” he said.

He explained that the Real Fathers programme has helped rescue many girls from early marriages.

“Where we have girls that have gone into early marriages, we take them away from the marriages and take them back to school. But we don’t just stop there, we also monitor them while they are there in school and encourage them so that they are able to fulfil their full potential,” Munyonga said.

*We have not used real names on protection grounds