Mphatso Nguluwe once told a group of international donors that if the only thing she had ever achieved was to save an eight-year-old girl from a forced marriage to a 52-year-old man, she would consider their millions of dollars well spent.
Nguluwe is director of Livingstonia Synod’s AIDS Programme. She was speaking to the collection of donors about Empowering Boys and Girls Through Increased Access to Education, which is, on one level, a response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in northern Malawi, but it also responds to the underlying issues of poverty.
She was speaking of Ellen, a girl who was essentially sold into marriage in the tradition of Kupimbira, a cultural practice in the Karonga district. Ellen (not her real name) had become sick with an abdominal complication. Three months later her parents could not pay for the treatment.
At the same time, Ellen’s brother was slated to get married but the family did not have the bride-price of three cows to pay to the new in-laws.
Ellen’s father struck a deal with a middle-aged man to cover the medical debts and also cover most of the older son’s marriage payments.
The Boys and Girls Empowerment program brings to bear a variety of cultural and legal pressures to annul the marriage. LISAP, Nguluwe’s organization, has to walk gently across cultural assumptions, arguing in favour of education for children. Once the much-older husband, who may already have several other wives, agrees to release the child from the marriage, the girl is taken to a school.
According to LISAP’s July newsletter, Ellen was incommunicative and distant for the longest while. She felt betrayed by her parents. When she finally opened up, feeling that perhaps she was safe, one of the first things she said was, “They said I was going to visit my grandparents.”
Nguluwe acknowledges that girls like Ellen suffer emotional and psychological damage for years afterwards. Part of their education is to give them the confidence to have hopes for their lives.
Ellen is quoted in the newsletter as saying, “It is better learning here [at the school] because I am not subjected to a lot of domestic chores which I had. … When I finish my education I will be happy to train as a driver and work for LISAP.”
LISAP is a project of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Synod of Livingstonia. CCAP and LISAP are supported by the Presbyterian Church in Canada through Presbyterian World Service and Development and International Ministries.
Rev. Dr. John Vissers, moderator of the 138th General Assembly, visited with Nguluwe and LISAP on September 5, along with his wife Lynn, and Rev. Dr. Rick Fee, general secretary of the Life and Mission Agency.