Wonders of Dialogue Meetings in Neno
It’s about two hours to sunset on Tuesday at Hiwa village, Group Village Headman Chidakwani, Traditional Authority Chekucheku in Neno district.
The soft wind blows past the baobab and mango trees that save young boys and girls in the area from the scorching sun as they engage authorities on matters that concern them the most.
Loud noise from the nearby diesel-powered maize mill corroborates, somehow, the amplified voice of these young generation that seeks answers from leaders, parents and guardians and public authorities on various questions that seem to derail their future.
Under the child friendly advocacy and interface meetings, the youths in this are able to, through dialogue meetings, get responses and commitments from the leaders and policymakers in bringing to an end child marriages and teenage pregnancies.
On this day, one of child advocates, Benedicto John, is leading the dialogue meeting.
He flips the chart where challenges as presented by the youth are put down and suggested solutions from policy makers and leaders follow.
“The youth here have found out that early pregnancies, teenage marriages and school drop outs are some of the pressing issues hindering our education.
“Now the question is, what are you doing to address these challenges,” John posed the question to leaders, policy makers and parents.
Peter Kanama, one of the parents rises and tells the dialogue meting that “it is true that most young girls and boys are involved in early marriages and teen marriages.
“This is happening because of some of our cultural practices such as initiation ceremonies. A child can be well mannered before going into initiation camps. The moment that child comes out of the initiation camp, everything changes in terms of behaviour.
“They want to practice what they are taught in the camps. Here, I am talking about antics on how to satisfy each other sexually. That is how we are losing our children.”
He added that poverty is also escalating the cases as people with money from town come into the villages with materials and entice parents to marry off their children, calling on police to act on such people.
“Let me send message to police. When we apprehend a defiler or someone who has married a teen girl and report him to police, the suspect is left scot free. This 48-hour bail rule is not deterrent,” he said.
Kanama says as a father, his contribution does not only end at the dialogue meetings.
“Three times a week I sit down with my family, counselling the children best ways of living. This does not, however, go without challenges as some people think sitting down with girl child means the father is sleeping with her. This is a setback but we have focused our attention on future of our children,” said Kanama.
GVH Chidakwani responds by telling the committee that he established by-laws “with penalties to perpetrators.
“So far, I have suspended eight chiefs whose areas recorded cases of teen marriages. The suspensions are on top of fines that I impose on all the people responsible for teen pregnancies and marriages.”
The leader made an appeal to fellow chiefs in other areas to “establish the by-laws and impose penalties on perpetrators of teen pregnancies and marriages. It is bearing fruits in my area.”
Neno police spokesperson who is also the district’s child protection officer, Sub Inspector Austin Kamwendo, says their duty is to enforce laws which, among other things, protect the young people.
“We do not give bail to defilement suspects, unless it is sanctioned by the court. We are sensitizing the communities on the ills of teen marriages and pregnancies that it is criminal,” said kamwendo.
The dialogue meetings are being facilitated under the Securing Children’s Rights through Education and Protection (SCREP) programme.
The programme is being implemented in the district by the Community Action for Sustainable Development Organization (CASDO) in partnership with Save the Children, sponsored by NORAD.
“The programme seeks to contribute to the strengthening of civil society in Malawi to demand quality education with a focus on learning outcomes, inclusion, protection from child marriage and teenage pregnancies, access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) as well as child rights,” says David McPherson Chidakwa, CASDO Executive Director.
To achieve the cause, Chidakwa says the programme is training youth clubs in drama as a tool to disseminate the message about teen marriages and early pregnancy, among other interventions.
“More cases are now being reported as more people are now becoming aware of the malpractices as a result of the theater. Initiation’s counsellors have been suspended for encouraging girls to sleep with men after reaching puberty.
“The programme conducts community mobile court circuit to the community for any cases related to child abuse, especially defilement.
“As a programme, we have registered increased number of enrollment and community members taking part in supporting learning and child protection. Some cultures like chitomelo are being banned and minimized,” he said.
Chikonde Zone Primary Education Adviser, Queen Sagawa, testifies that the programme has helped school authorities to learn the challenges learners face in their communities.
“As you recall, schools were closed because of COVID-19. That break escalated cases of teen pregnancies and early marriages. In my zone, 47 girls were married off; 12 got pregnant but they are now back in school,” said Sagawa.
14-year-old Princess Juma is a member of Matandani Child Led Club. She is in Standard 7 at Matandani Primary School, and hopeful that the programme will save more girls from the monsters in her area.
“At the club, we advise each other to refrain from engaging in promiscuous activities. We advise each other to dress properly so that we do not tempt men who can in the end spoil our future.
“With this, it is our hope that most of us will complete our studies and develop this area,’ said Juma.